Riddles in the Syria road map

The good news is that world powers are finally pushing for a political resolution in Syria. But ambitious timelines, a vagueness about the future of the Assad regime and disagreements over which groups constitute the opposition mean a single unified state remains a distant dream

December 22, 2015 12:38 am | Updated August 31, 2016 12:30 pm IST

After nearly five years of war that killed more than 2,50,000 people and displaced millions, the >United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has finally come to an agreement on an international road map for a peace process in Syria. Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously by the Security Council last week, calls for a ceasefire between the regime of >Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels within a month and the establishment of a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian” government in Damascus within six months. It has also set an 18-month deadline for free and fair elections and a new Constitution that would decide the future of Syria.

Given the nature of the >Syrian civil war and the multiple agendas of the various players involved in the conflict — either directly or through their proxies — it is not tough to see that the timelines set by the UN are overtly ambitious. But, at the same time, the agreement signals a strong desire of the major powers to find common ground on Syria and push for a political settlement, irrespective of their divergent interests.

Evolving positions Syria is the first conflict where both the United States and Russia are militarily involved since the end of the Cold War. Both countries have different approaches towards the Assad regime. If the U.S. was among the first group of nations that imposed sanctions on the government and called for the removal of Mr. Assad, Russia remained a strong pillar of support for Damascus. But over the years, Washington’s Syria policy has evolved from one of idealistic intransigence to that of pragmatic flexibility, narrowing the gap with the Russian position.

In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, the Barack Obama administration miscalculated the strength of the regime. Its expectation was that the Assad government was on the verge of collapse — either to be toppled by rebels or to be imploded. This analysis was the main reason behind Washington’s refusal to accept Russian plans for transition in Syria. Former Finnish President and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who had held back-room negotiations with the major powers on Syria, recently said Moscow had proposed a three-point agenda in early 2012 that included Mr. Assad’s resignation. But Britain, France and the U.S. rejected the proposal. What followed was a humanitarian catastrophe. Mr. Assad stayed on, while the Islamic State (IS) rose from the ruins of a protracted civil war, endangering millions of people.

During the course of the war, Mr. Obama came under enormous pressure from Washington’s allies in West Asia, mainly Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to bomb Damascus to take Mr. Assad out of power. The allies knew that only the U.S. could do it as the Russians are directly backing Mr. Assad. But Mr. Obama has never been convinced that removing Mr. Assad forcibly from power would produce any positive outcome. He was rather wary of the possibility of a post-Assad Syria plunging into chaos, like Iraq and Libya did after their dictators were toppled, which would help the IS consolidate its position further. America’s efforts to build a rebel group that could fight both the regime and the jihadists also faltered, being overrun by the Islamist militants. Besides, the refugee crisis in the West forced the U.S. and its European allies to accelerate efforts to find a solution to the conflict. Left with only limited options, the U.S. toned down its approach towards Mr. Assad. The administration still wants him to go, but it will not say when and how he should go.

Message from Moscow As for the Russians, Syria is a strategic asset in West Asia. Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet region is in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus. Russia also sees Syria as an outpost of its power from where it could influence West Asian politics. From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Russia’s primary goal was to safeguard its interests, and helping the Assad regime stay was a means to do that. Russia has actually played a pivotal role in the conflict so far. It persuaded Mr. Assad to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, a move that provided Mr. Obama a face-saving excuse for not bombing Damascus in 2013. It also sent fighter bombers to Syria in September, marking the first major intervention outside the Soviet region since the 1979-89 Afghan war, to attack Mr. Assad’s rebels when the regime was losing battles. Russia’s stakes are high. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bet is not on Mr. Assad, but on the state Baathists have built in Syria. That is why Mr. Putin said the only solution to the Syrian crisis is “restoring the statehood”.

Moscow seems to have realised that with Mr. Assad at the helm, after all the bloodshed the war has triggered, it is practically impossible to reach sustainable peace in Syria. But it does not just abandon Mr. Assad either — which is not, historically, a Russian approach towards its allies. Moscow wants a structural transition that would not only offer a face-saving exit to Mr. Assad but also leave the Syrian state intact. That is exactly what the UN resolution is calling for. For example, look at how the most contentious issue — the future of Mr. Assad — has been addressed in the resolution. There is not a single reference to Mr. Assad in the 1,656-word text. It does not call for his resignation, nor does it say whether he is eligible to contest polls. This is closer to the Russian position that it is up to the Syrians to decide Mr. Assad’s fate. But the resolution categorically states that “all Syrians, including members of the diaspora” — the refugees and the displaced — should be eligible to vote in the elections which will be administered by the UN. The American calculation is that if the diaspora votes, that would lower Mr. Assad’s odds of winning.

Challenges on the ground While the UN resolution is indeed a welcome step towards peace, its implementation remains a difficult task. Even if the resolution is implemented in its letter and spirit, it will not encompass the whole of Syria. The talks will happen between the regime, which controls the Mediterranean strip of Syria, and the rebels in the south and west. Large swathes of the country are under the control of the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, where the war will go on. So a single unified Syrian state remains a distant dream. But what is more worrisome is that even the practical side of the UN proposal is complicated and challenging. The first step of the plan is to get both the government and the rebels to sign a ceasefire. Russia and Iran will have to put pressure on the Assad regime while the Saudis and the Turks should use their leverage on the rebels. The problem is that Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals in West Asian geopolitics and share a deep mistrust on core strategic issues. The relations between Moscow and Ankara reached rock bottom after the latter shot down a Russian warplane over the Syrian border last month.

More important, there is still no clarity about who is a moderate rebel and who is a terrorist among the Syrian opposition. Before the UN meet, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had asked Jordan to prepare a list of terrorists and non-terror rebels. There is a consensus that the IS should be excluded and a near-consensus on Jabhat al-Nusra. But there is no consensus on at least two controversial armed groups — the Saudi-sponsored Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of 12 Islamist and Salafist groups, and the Turkish- and Qatari-backed Ahrar al-Sham. Mr. Assad’s regional enemies want both these groups as part of the opposition table, while Damascus, Moscow and Tehran call them terrorists. Ahrar al-Sham, a group of more than 25,000 fighters, is particularly viewed with suspicion by many. The group has military ties with al-Nusra and it is also accused of widespread human rights violations. They also want Sharia to be established in any post-Assad set-up in Syria, which is a direct challenge to what world leaders want to rebuild Syria into — an inclusive democratic state. Both these groups were part of the rebel summit held in Riyadh last month — meaning, the Saudis will not blacklist them as terrorists. It is yet to be seen how Damascus would respond if these groups are made part of the rebel negotiation team.

Nationalising rebellion Another potential spoiler is the “Assad-must-go” obsession of the Saudi-Qatar axis. At the Riyadh conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had said Mr. Assad had two choices: “either to leave through negotiations or be forcibly removed from power”. After the UN plan was adopted, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blasted the peace proposal saying it “lacks realistic perspective”, while adding that the “Syria crisis can only be solved if Bashar al-Assad leaves power”. What is more important than removing Mr. Assad — which can be done through a democratic process — is nationalising the rebellion: disarming the militia groups and restoring the state’s monopoly over weapons. Only then can a stronger Syrian state fight the war against jihadists as well as rebuild shattered lives. If that does not happen first, the entire transition process will be in jeopardy. Whether Mr. Assad’s regional enemies let that happen is the question.


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