Editor's note: This is part two of an article titled 'The Syrian Cauldron Sizzles in Uncertainty' written by TALMIZ AHMED, who has served as Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. Part one of the article can be found here.
As the distinguished Arab commentator, Hussain Ibish has noted, diplomacy in Geneva will be "shaped by realities in Syria", and that the positions adopted by different players during the negotiations would be determined by the power scenario on the ground. Hence, not surprisingly, the greatest obstacle before the peace process is that both sides still believe that they will benefit from continuing military action. The opposition militia and their regional sponsors, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, view the Russian withdrawal announcement and the US-Russian diplomatic activity of the last month as suggesting that Russian support to retain Assad in power is flagging and that regime change remains a viable option.
The Assad regime, at the same time, sees its military successes against the opposition, particularly the ISIS, as enhancing its credibility as a bulwark against global terror and a force for stability at home. It believes that Russia recognizes its value and, in spite of ambivalent remarks emanating from Moscow, does not anticipate any dilution in Russian support to its continuation in power.
On the face of it, Iran remains steadfast in its support for the Assad regime as well as for the peace process. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the announcement of the Russian withdrawal as a "positive sign", indicating that the cease fire could be maintained without military force.
An Iranian commentator, Farhang Jahanpour, saw the Russian withdrawal as "timely, bold and constructive" and believed it would have positive implications for the Syrian catastrophe. He noted that Iran had begun the thinning out of its own military personnel in Syria much earlier, and that by February 2016 all its forces and advisors, estimated at 2000, had been withdrawn. (Other reports suggest that Iranian advisors are still in Syria and are coordinating military action with Syrian and Russian officers. A senior Iranian commander has also been quoted as saying that Iran would be deploying commandos and snipers in Syria.)
Reflecting a different position, an Iranian writer, Abbas Qaidaari, with a think tank affiliated with the presidency, saw the Russian withdrawal as a "betrayal" of Iran. He recalled that relations between Russia and Iran had "always been overshadowed by mutual suspicion" and there were "unfriendly intentions" toward the Islamic Republic from Russia. He noted that, while Russia had accomplished its limited aim of maintaining its hold over its military facilities in western Syria, Iran had the much broader interest of "preserving the logistical land corridor for arms and supplies between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon", and to "preserve the pro-Shiite government in Damascus that is committed to the agenda of the Islamic Resistance against Israel". Surprisingly, Qaidaari criticised the Russian bombing of the FSA, saying that this had eliminated any "acceptable alternative" to the Assad government, so that the Syrians now only had a choice between a weak Assad and the vicious ISIS.
That Iran envisages a US-Russian deal to oust Assad is conveyed in a piece by Ambassador Hossein Malaek who fears that UN peacekeepers could be deployed in Syria and Assad divested of all power, so that external role players, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are excluded from the Syrian political scenario.
In this background, the visit of Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu in early March becomes significant. Turkey faces a triple threat: from Kurdish aspirations at home, the creation of a buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border by the Syrian Kurds, and terrorist activity by ISIS in Turkey's major cities. Davutoglu affirmed the importance of the two countries developing "common perspectives" on regional conflicts in order to achieve regional security and stability.
In this context, there are reports of Iranian efforts to bridge the gap between Assad and the Turkish leadership, a daunting challenge given how deeply Turkey remains committed to Assad's removal, and indeed is seen as an important part of the "Islamic" military coalition announced by Saudi Arabia after the 34-nation exercises that took place at Hafr al Batin, northwest Saudi Arabia, at the end of February this year.
Given their significant strategic interest in regime change in Damascus, the Saudis continue to maintain an uncompromising posture in public, insisting that Assad can have no place in any future political scenario of Syria.
In the background of the “Islamic” coalition exercises, in March the Saudi military spokesman said that there had been discussions with the Americans on the Kingdom joining a "ground troop deployment" in Syria against ISIS, setting up the prospect of a possible military collision between Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side and Russia, with Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian army on the other.
The announcement of the Russian "withdrawal" ended this possibility, with the Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubair welcoming it as "a very positive step"; he added his hope that it would compel "the Assad regime to make the concessions necessary to bring about a political transition".
"Plan-B" for Syria
In his testimony in February before a US Senate committee before the Syrian ceasefire took effect, Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned for the first time the option of a "Plan-B" for Syria, a partition plan to be implemented if the ceasefire did not hold or if a shift to the transition government did not take place.
This remark has created visions of external interventions to partition Arab states, as had been done earlier under the Sykes-Picot arrangements. Of particular concern was the fact that Lavrov seemed to back Kerry when he spoke approvingly of a federal plan for Syria which would preserve Syria "as a united, secular, independent and sovereign nation". Writers evoked memories of the US partition of Iraq on ethnic and sectarian basis, which had inaugurated an era of sustained internecine conflict and opened the gates for the strengthening of extremist forces and external interventions in domestic conflicts.
The well-known Lebanese commentator, Ramzy Baroud has noted the partition plan for Syria set out by the American academic, Michael O'Hanlon, in which he has proposed a confederation of several sectors in Syria: Alawite, Kurdish, Druze and Sunni, with a central zone of inter-mixed groups. Abdel Bari Atwan sees in such plans "a sinister second chapter of Sykes-Picot". He believes that the prospect of the emergence' of a transnational Kurdistan? in West Asia is what encouraged Davutoglu to rush to Iran for consultations to put up a joint stand against this shared threat.
Addressing the problems of Syria calls for levels of understanding, accommodation, generosity of spirit, and statesmanship that have been entirely missing in the country and region over the last five years.
As the bloodthirsty conflict in Syria begins its sixth year, the threat of partition and the prospect of sustained internecine contention should encourage the Arab people and their leaders to delve deep into their history, faith and intellectual wealth to derive the capacity to address and resolve their competitions; otherwise, the death of Alan Kurdi and thousands others like him would have been absolutely futile.
[The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.]
(Cover photo: The conflict in Syria has led to a massive refugee crisis, with over 4 million Syrian refugees. Pictured are a group of Syrian refugees as they make their way into Turkey).