Sanjha Morcha

A war without end by Hasan Suroor

A war without end

WAR WITHOUT END: The search for a political solution is being held hostage to rivalries and divergent interests.

Hasan Suroor

The Syrian civil war is in its seventh year with half a million people dead, an estimated 11 million (roughly half the pre-war population) displaced, and more than 75 per cent of the country’s economy destroyed. Syria is no longer even one country; and, given the myriad foreign interests involved, nor is it just “Syria’s war” any more. President Bashar al-Assad is still standing but is a much diminished figure, and locked in a grim battle for survival. It’s a catastrophe at every level – political, diplomatic, and humanitarian.And as for the future, even knowledgeable pundits admit they have no idea. For all the apparent flurry of “peace” initiatives, there’s no real movement towards a political settlement.”There’s no peace process going on, and I don’t see any endpoint. We’re in for a state of permanent uncertainty,” says Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham.

So, what’s going on?

To be sure, two high-profile parallel peace processes are underway – a UN-led process in Geneva, which has now been going on for six years with little to show for it, and another sponsored by Russia in tandem with Iran and Turkey. Dubbed the “Sochi initiative” after the Russian city where it was agreed, it, too, has UN backing, but like the Geneva process it has made little headway. The deadlock both at Geneva and Sochi has less to do with real issues at stake and more with divisions among Syrian opposition groups, mostly proxies for various international powers with competing agendas. Their relationship with each other is constantly fluctuating depending on the line from their international patrons; which then has a knock-on effect on the peace process. The search for a political solution is being held hostage to their rivalries and divergent interests.The other big factor for the stalemate is that the regime and the Opposition have contradictory expectations from any negotiations. And this is compounded by mutual suspicion and distrust. So, a process acceptable to one side becomes automatically unacceptable to the other. While Assad is suspicious of the Geneva process because it visualises a short transition period after which he may have to go, opposition groups are opposed to Sochi because it sidesteps the issue of Assad’s future.The opposition faction that’s proving to be particularly difficult is the UN-recognised Syrian Negotiation Committee (SNC). It’s refusing even to sit down for talks unless the removal of Assad is on the agenda. Its hardline stance on a “political transition minus Assad” as a precondition for participation is causing frustration as much among Assad’s allies as it is in western capitals, and especially at the UN. Its special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is involved with both the Geneva and Sochi processes, has expressed concern that the SNC’s inflexibility is hindering an inclusive political settlement and has publicly chided it for boycotting the Sochi conference calling it a pro-Assad show intended to “supplant” the Geneva talks.Moves are afoot to go ahead with the decision taken in Sochi to set up a cross-party commission to draft a new constitution for a “democratic” Syria despite opposition from the SNC and its allies. De Mistura is trying to woo them with the assurance that that the 50-member commission would represent all shades of opinion, and not be confined only to those who attended Sochi. The SNC too would be invited to nominate its representatives, but nobody would have a veto on its composition. In other words, everyone will get fair representation but no faction, however big and irrespective of whose proxies they might be, would be allowed to derail the process. De Mistura has sought to allay opposition fears that it’s intended to “subvert” Geneva talks by holding out the promise of eventually merging the two processes. But so far he has failed to achieve a breakthrough.Five months since the Sochi conference, the deadlock continues while the situation on the ground is steadily worsening with Israel jumping into the fray ostensibly to counter Iran. Prof Scott likened De Mistura to a man “wandering in a desert” and hoping that something will turn up. The fact, he says, is that the UN itself is deeply divided and being pulled in different directions with few takers for De Mistura’s enthusiasm in New York. And that reflects the wider divisions within the international community over dealing with the Syrian crisis.Meanwhile, strange as it might sound, the fact is that if today anyone can claim some sort of a victory it is Assad, given the dire predictions of his imminent political demise at the start of the war. There was a moment when the conventional wisdom held that it was all over for him and it was only a matter of time before he was toppled. But he has defied all odds and managed to survive thanks largely to Russia’s game-changing military intervention and help from Iran and its regional proxies.Not only is his regime intact, he has been able to wrest back a lot of the territory he had lost to rebel groups and the Islamic State. Set against this, however, is the stark reality that he’s left clinging to a heavily truncated country, effectively partitioned into three geographical entities, only one of which is controlled by him. So, there’s a lot of work to do, for which continuing Russian backing remains critical. But Moscow is under growing pressure not only from the West but also from its regional Sunni friends who it cannot afford to alienate without risking its long-term strategic stakes in the Arab world. At home, too, Vladimir Putin is facing protests over the high financial and human cost of its military involvement in Syria at a time of deepening economic crisis as western sanctions start to bite. There’s also wariness about a long-drawn-out commitment that could see it bogged down as happened in Afghanistan.Last December, Putin announced a partial withdrawal of his forces saying declaring the mission had been mostly accomplished but he also made clear that Russia would continue to retain enough firepower as long as it was needed. Privately, however, he’s said to have conveyed to Assad that he should not expect him to hold his hand forever. The flip side of an abrupt withdrawal is that in the absence of a credible peace process it risks creating a vacuum which is likely to be exploited by extremists.Whatever the outcome eventually, Syria will go down as one of the biggest failures of international diplomacy in arguably the world’s most volatile region.The writer is a London-based commentator.