While Arab leaders ended their annual summit this week with vague calls for a political settlement in Syria world leaders, including the heads of the three states that carried out missile strikes against Syrian regime targets on Saturday, were mired in a debate over whether their mission in Syria had been “accomplished”.
According to an international diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly from New York on condition of anonymity, the debate in the US, France and the UK over the timing, scope and the targets of the strikes was raging well before the first missile was fired.
On 14 April the three Western states launched missile attacks against what they said were sites the Syrian regime was using to manufacture chemical weapons.
Earlier this month they accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons against civilians in Douma.
The strikes were announced on Saturday by US officials. Moscow, which backs the Syrian regime and has a major military presence in Syria, received advance notice after threatening to intercept any missiles.
“The Russians did not intercept the missiles. The Americans cannot agree on what needs to be done next. The French want to build on the joint military/political momentum while the UK is unsure about its next move,” the diplomat said.
The Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday similarly failed to reach any agreement on Syria, with Saudi Arabia and most other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council openly supporting the Western strikes while the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria were reservedly opposed.
“Al-Assad is part of the equation. The Saudis might have to accept he will remain but for the time being they are unwilling to let go of any chance to remove him if one appears. Abu Dhabi and Cairo, meanwhile, are very keen to keep him in office even if they are not in full agreement with his choices,” said an Arab diplomat.
“It’s unclear what will happen next but there seems little possibility of a serious political solution given the regional and international divisions over Syria. The military option is certainly not going to work. It is too late now to try to force Al-Assad out. The conflict on the ground has become too complicated during the last seven years.”
So what comes next?
International and Arab diplomats who spoke to the Weekly say meetings and consultations will now ensue what might lead to a new political process, a limited cease-fire across Syria and better management of the huge and growing humanitarian crisis.
France, whose president insists the mission in Syria is far from accomplished, is preparing to host a limited meeting with the French foreign minister and his counterparts from the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The meeting, which could take place today, will assess the possibility of assembling a Syrian opposition coalition capable of agreeing on an agenda for the launch of a political settlement.
France is also trying to build a consensus with its allies, especially the US where President Donald Trump was offended when French President Emmanuel Macron suggested pressure from Paris had been successful in persuading the White House to keep troops in Syria.
Last month Trump stated publicly he would end the US military presence in Syria. In a tweet earlier this week he announced that the mission in Syria was “accomplished”, only to backtrack in a subsequent post.
“I don’t think Trump or the American administration has made up its mind. The Americans are talking to their allies in the region, especially Israel which has a serious stake in the file. They are also weighing the impact their next moves on Syria could have on Iran and its regional allies. These consultations will take time,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
It is unlikely, says the diplomat, such consultations will produce a decision to remove Al-Assad by force. “That is rejected by some of Washington’s closest regional allies and it is also not clear whether Israel wants Al-Assad out of the picture now or would rather keep the weakened Syrian president in place while forcing a reduced Iranian presence in Syria.”
In its own strike against Syrian targets ahead of the Western strikes Israel killed four Iranian advisers at an Iranian controlled air base in Syria. Israel is also pressing Moscow to curtail any deal that would allow the transfer of sophisticated Russian weapons systems to Syria. Tehran, meanwhile, is openly saying it will retaliate against Israel.
“It is a complicated and very volatile situation. Nobody wants an explosion of tensions in a country that is so strategically positioned and that has already generated an appalling refugee crisis,” says the Cairo-based European diplomat. “The next moves were far from obvious before the strikes, and they remain so now.”
As a result of Russian and Iranian military backing the balance on the ground clearly favours Al-Assad, making the chances of hammering out a political agreement acceptable to both the regime and its widely diverse opposition an almost impossible task.
According to a diplomat who has served on the UN mission on Syria, it was always going to be difficult to forge an agreement given the conflicting agendas of regional and international powers. Today the problem has, if anything, worsened.
Diplomats working on Syria say the most likely scenario is that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) will be allowed access to Douma early next week.
Russia and Syria have so far blocked OPCW access to the area of the regime’s suspected chemical attack, prompting Western accusations that the Syrian regime and Russia were colluding to cover up the use of chemical weapons that left 75 people, many of them children, dead.
Allowing the entry of the OPCW team would reduce the level of international tension. In addition, the UN Security Council might adopt a vague resolution, similar to the one adopted by the Arab Summit on Sunday, condemning the use of chemical weapons against civilians and calling for a political process to end the conflict in Syria.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly