August 13, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Diplomatic Moves on Syria
A recent burst of diplomatic activity has led to speculation that there may at last be some moves towards ending the civil war in Syria. Russia and Iran, until now both steadfast supporters of the Syrian government, have been particularly active in promoting a solution. But whatever has been said in private, nothing has emerged in public to suggest any early agreement on the way forward. The difficulty remains finding common ground between those powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that insist President Assad must go before negotiations can begin, and those like Russia and Iran that argue he should stay in power until the Syrian people can decide on a new government.
But while foreign ministers discuss the areas and scope of their disagreements, events in Syria do not stand still. The so-called Islamic State captured al-Qaryatain last week, a town halfway between Palmyra, which it captured in May, and Damascus, and even closer to the main road that links Damascus to government-held areas in the rest of the country. Elsewhere, rebels managed to fight Hizballah to a standstill in Zabadani, a town close to the Lebanese border just north of the main road linking Damascus and Beirut. Both sides agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire on August 12 to relieve civilians caught up in the fighting. In other areas, rebels have consolidated their positions and continue to face a greater threat from their rivals than from the Syrian army.
Although the momentum of the war is not yet exclusively in favor of the rebels—and no one is predicting Assad’s early fall—there is no doubt that the regime is weaker now than at any time in the past. It has effectively given up large areas of the country, and it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which it could regain the upper hand. For the moment, its most potent weapon is the chlorine-filled barrel bomb, which is ideally suited to causing civilian casualties and building support for the rebels. The UN Security Council agreement last week, long frustrated by Moscow, to investigate responsibility for the use of these crude chemical devices, may eventually deny the regime even this weapon.
Russia’s support for the Security Council resolution and the involvement of Foreign Minister Lavrov in talks on Syria with Secretary Kerry and many regional counterparts—including the Saudi Foreign Minister earlier this week—may signal recognition by Moscow that its key Middle East partner is on the ropes. Both Russia and Iran may be keen to get what they can while they still have some bargaining power.
Russia’s argument is that the fight against terrorism should take precedence over discussion of the future of Syria, and that Assad is an essential partner in defeating the Islamic State. At least 2,000 Russians are believed to have gone to Syria to fight, and there are a growing number of fighters in the Caucasus who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But in fact, Assad’s forces have largely left the Islamic State alone, and have directed their fight more against the threat from other rebel groups. And where the two sides have clashed, the Syrian army has come off the worse, showing no particular capacity to fight the sort of war favored by the Islamic State.
Iran’s argument is that Syria—like Yemen and Iraq—is a battlefield where outside states compete for influence, and it is therefore up to outside states to promote peace. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Damascus yesterday following a visit to Lebanon, where he secured the full support of Hizballah to re-launch a peace plan that involves a ceasefire, the formation of a national unity government, revision of the Syrian constitution so as to guarantee the rights of all citizens, and elections to decide who should run the country. The plan assumes that Assad, or some part of his regime, would remain in power at least in the short term, and so it is unlikely to be acceptable either to all Syrians or to all international partners.
The two countries most opposed to Assad staying on are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, was in Moscow on Tuesday, where he reiterated that Assad was part of the problem, not the solution, though he did add that in the interest of stability it would be necessary to preserve the Syrian government and the Syrian army in the post-Assad period. Lavrov admitted that Russia and Saudi Arabia were a long way short of agreement. Turkey remains adamantly opposed to Assad, but in any case is unlikely to be in favor of any talks about peace while it is locked in its battle with the Kurds.
Beyond the issues of Syria, regional states are shifting positions as they reckon with the likelihood of long-term instability at the heart of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates need to extract themselves from Yemen without appearing to give ground to Iran; Iran, having lost ground in Iraq and Syria, must establish a firmer footing in the Arab world; Egypt must somehow encourage stability in Syria and get closer to Iran while maintaining its relationship with Saudi Arabia; Iraq must find a way to offer its Sunni minority better governance without provoking an overwhelming backlash from its Shi’a majority; Turkey must look cooperative to the anti-Islamic State alliance without overextending its role; Oman must shore up its outlier position within the Gulf Cooperation Council through the effective exercise of constructive neutrality; and Syria must present itself as a functioning government and an essential partner against terrorism.
But although these interests diverge, the regional powers share the challenge of dealing with the emergence as a proto-state of a non-state actor. However direct or indirect the threat may be, the Islamic State will make an uncomfortable neighbor for all, and the clarity of its appeal—albeit to small numbers—and the force of its vision will ensure that it makes its presence felt among the people of the region regardless of the deals and discussions between their governments. To quote Pankaj Mishra, the Islamic State 'is the canniest of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection.’
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