Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Syria: what has to be done

Syria had everybody's attention when UK parliament decided that Britain would not take part in any action following the chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of Damascus and the US also backed away from carrying out air strikes (1). Since then, Syria has not exactly been forgotten - how could it be forgotten when atrocities of an almost unimaginable type are brought to light - but there has not been the sustained focus to discuss what can be, or has to be, done. The slaughter continues, obviously, but much of public opinion seems to think that we "avoided war" (2).

Objectively, the non-intervention has been disastrous. The opposition Coalition (3) has lost almost all credibility and influence with those fighting the Assad regime on the ground. In turn, the fighting forces are becoming increasingly dominated by jihadists (Salafis) and some elements are showing a brutality that approaches that of the regime (4). Any opposition body that said it was prepared to enter negotiations, without the precondition of Assad stepping down, would lose even more credibility and influence on the ground (5). So, it is hard to see any such negotiations getting started in any meaningful way.

In the light of this, it is difficult to see a way forward.

One action should be taken unilaterally, by those who support the Syrian opposition. More pressure should be put on Gulf states, such as Kuwait, to cut off funding to the more extreme groups. Also, Turkey should attempt to prevent fighters and supplies for these groups passing into Syria (6). If support continued, through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the more "moderate" groups and was channelled more effectively through the Coalition and the SMC/FSA control structure, this could help reconstitute an opposition body that was seen as representative and able to control groups on the ground (7), and thus able to take part in negotiations without the precondition.
 
The (relatively) moderate elements of the opposition would retain an ambivalent attitude towards al-Nusra, but at least ISIS might be isolated (8).

That Iran should be involved in the negotiations seems to me self-evident (9). The primary concern for the US and its allies (especially Israel) would be the nuclear issue, so this is likely to be a prerequisite, but if, if, a deal can be reached on Iran's nuclear programme, it could open the way for progress on talks over Syria. The Assad regime could hardly survive without the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah (which would not continue to support it against the wishes of Tehran), just as the opposition could not continue the fight without support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the tacit approval of the US and other Western powers (10). This is not to discuss the details of any possible agreement or to minimise the difficulty of reaching one, but it is clear that all actors with the real capacity to influence events on the ground need to be involved if a way out of this conflict is to be found (11). 

Otherwise, “A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.” (IGC, June 2013, Page i )

Notes:
(1) This continued a pattern whereby the regime is able to bank "on the international community’s divisions and dithering" (IGC report, 27 June 2013, Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts, p1). As an example of this: 'After weeks of British and French pressure forced the end of an EU embargo on arms supplies to the opposition, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested that material support was necessary because “we’re only going to get a political solution to this crisis if the opposition – the moderate, sensible parts of the opposition – can’t be destroyed”. But less than a month later, UK media reported Prime Minister David Cameron had abandoned plans to provide weapons, partly out of concern some would end up with jihadis. SMC head Salim Idris was incensed, arguing that without Western support “soon there will be no Free Syrian Army to arm. The Islamic groups will take control of everything, and this is not in the interests of Britain”.' (IGC, 17 Oct 2013, Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition, p17, fn71)

(2) See comments here (11/10)  Syria chemical weapons monitors win Nobel Peace Prize.
(3) the Coalition or National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which includes the SNC (Syrian National Council).

(4) The Latakia massacres; Assad’s snipers target women and their unborn babies.
(5) "all governments, companies, and individuals should immediately stop selling or supplying weapons, ammunition, materiel, and funds to these groups, given compelling evidence that they have committed crimes against humanity, until they stop committing these crimes ... Turkey should increase border patrols, restrict entry of fighters and arm flows to groups credibly found to be implicated in systematic human rights violations." (HRW, “You Can Still See Their Blood”, p7)

"there should be real commitment by all donor states [..] to adopt a shared framework for militant funding and supplies that bans Gulf-based private fundraising, reaches agreement on authorised recipients and imposes strict rules of behaviour. ... Turkey should disrupt the flow of jihadi fighters and fundraisers transiting the country into northern Syria." (IGC, 17 Oct 2013, Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition, p29) "Though Saudi Arabia claims to have reined in its clerics’ independent fundraising efforts, such campaigns openly persist in Kuwait and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, attracting contributions from private donors throughout the region." (IGC, Oct 2013, p18, fn76)

(6) This would, in the words of the IGC “make more likely the emergence of a more coherent, structured, representative and thus effective interlocutor”.
(7) See Syria: to negotiate or not?; also Inside Syria, 19 Oct 2013 (Geneva II: The last exit for peace? youtube), discussion with George Sabra, president of the SNC and Farah al-Attasi,  member of the Coalition.
(8) Put bluntly, given the current imbalance of military resources, they need Nusra's suicide bombers, to make an initial breach of defences when attacking military installations. As for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ash-Sham), while they too undoubtedly take part in military operations against the regime, they also concentrate much of their effort on establishing their strict islamic rule in "liberated" areas, thus alienating the population and creating what many see as an "alternative dictatorship". One example is of activists forced to flee from Raqqa (Al Jazeera, 18 Aug).

(9) "The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus." (IGC, June 2013, Page iii )
(10) Israel's government has reacted with scepticism to the possibility of a deal with Iran. But the alternative - not resolving the issue peacefully - is difficult to contemplate. If the US was not willing to carry out even limited strikes against Syria, how would it find the political will for an attack on Iran, of potentially even greater significance than Iraq or Syria, especially when a relatively moderate president has come into office? And could Israel carry out action on its own?

Saudi Arabia is said to have "been angered by the increasing rapport between Washington and Iran", this being one of the possible factors in it saying it would not take up its UNSC seat (Al Jazeera, 19 Oct), but is Saudi Arabia prepared to fight Iran to the death (literally in the case of even larger numbers of Syrians), when there is a possible alternative, through détente with Iran. 
 
France and the UK, as well as being UNSC P5 members, have taken the lead within the EU in providing direct assistance to the opposition, such as it has been - see note (1).

Iraq's government may also have a role to play. Since recovering to a state of relative peace, after the disastrous period of late 2006 / early 2007, it has slipped back into a state of daily terrorist attacks. This follows a period in early 2013 of peaceful protests, largely unreported (except by Al Jazeera), by the Arab Sunni minority against exclusion by the Shi'a-led Maliki government. Officially, the government says it does not support either side in the Syrian conflict, but Iraqi Shi'a are reported to have taken part in the fighting on behalf of the regime and of course there are linkages between largely rebel-held eastern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq, with probably a two-way flow of fighters / terrorists and weapons.

(11)  "When, in January 2013, Assad presented his vision of reconciliation, power sharing and reform, he avoided any discussion of possible negotiations over the regime’s core (the ruling family, praetorian guards and security elite). Instead, he spoke of potential changes in the fictional realm of the state – via a national unity government, revised constitution and democratic elections, all of which essentially will remain irrelevant for as long as real power is vested elsewhere." (IGC, June 2013, p21)

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