A distant hope for Syrian crisis

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For the 330000 dead souls of Syria it may be small comfort that the bloody conflict in their homeland is drawing to a close, finally, but it is brilliant news nonetheless.

Although there has been a struggle against terrorism on Syrian soil, the struggle was quintessentially geopolitical. The decades-long US agenda – at least, dating back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – was at the core of it. That agenda, which sucked in regional and extra-regional powers, has conclusively failed. Therefore, it is the regional settlement that becomes crucial at this stage.

Peacemaking makes strange bedfellows because protagonists are jockeying for position to secure their interests. The trilateral summit in Sochi between Russia, Iran and Turkey on Wednesday can be regarded as a celebratory event insofar as Russia and Iran have not only ‘won’ the Syrian war but also cemented the ‘defection’ of Turkey to their side. The locus of Middle East politics itself has shifted. This is one thing.

Equally, Russian diplomacy has effectively ‘neutralized’ Saudi Arabia and encouraged that country to ‘sanitize’ the Syrian opposition groups who are under its influence and nudge them toward swallowing the bitter pill and drop their persistent pre-condition that President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of any solution to the Syrian problem.

With Qatar and Jordan having already moved to a ‘neutral position’ on their own accord in the recent months – each for its own reasons of self-interest – and with Egypt all along being fully behind the Russian leadership, there is no regional state that is any longer in the business of prolonging the fratricidal war by putting up proxy groups.

Except, of course, Israel. But then, Israel is a small country and non-Muslim and lacks the clout to influence the prevailing winds or to create new facts on the ground in Syria. The Russian President Vladimir Putin who spoke to all key regional leaders and (US President Donald Trump) on Tuesday night in a flurry of ‘telephone diplomacy’ pointedly ignored Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who then had to initiate a request to the Kremlin to solicit a briefing by Putin. (Putin graciously obliged.) But it was a signal of displeasure to ‘Bibi’ from the Kremlin as well as a warning to behave responsibly in the period ahead.

Added to the Saudi back-tracking in Lebanon, Israel has been virtually put out of business. Besides, the fact of the matter is that the ISIS has been defeated and Syrian army controls over 98 percent of territory (according to Russian estimates.) There is already talk of a winding down of the Russian military presence in Syria before the end of the year.

So, how will the post-conflict scenario look in Syria? The Sochi summit provided some signposts. There are five main ‘takeaways’.

  • Turkey has a deal with Russia and Iran to accept Assad’s continuance as leader through the transition – and even beyond (more of that below) – and in return, President Erdogan scored a major victory in keeping the Kurds from inclusion in the settlement.
  • The troika – Russia, Iran and Turkey – will be in the driving seat to shepherd the Syrian parties to the negotiating table in Geneva where the UN will notionally preside over the talks. The three countries will decide the participants for the upcoming Syrian Dialogue to be held in Sochi in early December to discuss a constitution and deliberate on the broad contours of a settlement.
  • The troika will also continue to be the ‘guarantor powers’ ensuring the ceasefire and will coordinate the maintenance of security within Syria through the uncertain period ahead. But the so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ as such will be an interim measure, which will be disbanded once the transition is complete. That means, there is no scope for external powers to carve out ‘spheres of influence’ on Syrian territory.
  • A US withdrawal from Syria becomes inevitable, no matter what Defence Secretary James Mattis might say or not. In fact, an open-ended US military presence (such as in Afghanistan) will be possible only through the establishment of a puppet government in Syria, which is inconceivable.
  • Russia has emerged as the Master of Ceremonies. This is not at all surprising since Russia is the only power on earth which has networking with all protagonists within Syria, in the region and internationally. The Russians displayed a masterly performance in optimally conducting ‘coercive diplomacy’. It is an incredible feat that they entered the Syrian conflict only in September 2015 but turned the tide of the war within a short period of time, went on to crush the ISIS, and consolidated Assad’s position as the unassailable future leader – all within a matter of two years flat – and are now putting together the nuts and bolts of a settlement almost suo moto, while also carrying along the ‘losers’ in the war and altogether eschewing triumphalism.

Trump himself appears to be on board Putin’s settlement formula, which is of a unitary Syrian state and a democratically government that comes out of UN-supervised elections in which all Syrians (including Assad) can contest. (To jog memory, the Trump-Putin statement on Syria after their meeting in Da Nang even made a reference to Assad.)

Indeed, there are grey areas still. The most important one involves the continued presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the militia supported by Iran and Hezbollah who have been the real source of strength on the ground for the Syrian government. But it is unrealistic to expect the Syrian army to handle the security all by itself through the delicate period of transition. There are terrorist groups present on Syrian soil, as the massive attack in Damascus today shows.

The bottom line is that the above becomes a non-issue if Assad remains in power because as the democratically elected leader of a sovereign country, it will be his prerogative to seek help from any quarter to strengthen national security. And the plain truth is that there is no credible opposition figure who can rival Assad in a free and fair election in Syria. If anything, the 7-year bloody civil war strengthens Assad’s appeal to the Syrian people cutting across religion or sects as the only bulwark against instability and chaos. To my mind, all that Assad needs is a level playing field in the nature of an inclusive democratic process.

Russia and Iran insisted throughout that it is for the Syrian people to elect or reject candidates in a democratic election. Turkey has now virtually identified with that principled stance. In a very significant remark, Turkish President Recep Erdogan said after the Sochi summit that he does not rule out resuming contacts with Assad in the coming period. The principle that it is simply not for outsiders to prescribe the political future of Syria is only going to get wider regional and international acceptance. In fact, one can visualize even European countries re-establishing ties with Damascus in a near future.

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