NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference during a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 10, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)
As tens of thousands of Syrian civilians flee toward the Turkish border to escape the hell of civil war, the Syrian regime is elated, having scored a series of major military advances in the framework of the four-member axis that also includes Russia, Iran and Iraq. Politically, on the other hand, in Brussels and Munich, the venues for two major international security activities, the Syrian crisis has seen a movement offensive a different sort, albeit making no progress toward peace.
In Brussels, the seat of NATO, 24 defence ministers met to discuss ways of confronting Daesh (Islamic State group) in Syria, Iraq and Libya. On the Syrian question it was clear that strategic thinking was turning again to the option of military intervention, if indirectly through a naval presence in the Aegean. But the most striking aspect of the activities in Brussels was the torrent of criticisms levelled at Russia, the most salient factor in current developments in the Syrian theatre. The unanimous view appears to be that Russian intervention radically altered the nature of the Syrian crisis so as to shift the balance of forces on the ground in favour of Syrian regime. This was couched in angry and incriminating language to the degree that NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg accused Moscow of undermining peace efforts and warned that its aerial attacks in Syria would have consequences.
The Syrian opposition spokesman Riad Hijab also lashed out at Al-Assad’s Russian ally. He expressed his concerns on the international management of the Syrian crisis and what he interprets as clear evidence of a US-Russian agreement allowing Russian and Al-Assad forces to continue bombardment of opposition positions in Aleppo. This was in spite of what was essentially the main purpose of the Munich meeting that sought to promote a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table. However, the opposition rejected the call while the regime, which feels lucky with the “Russian Trojan horse by its side”, as an Egyptian expert in regional security affairs put it, appeared equally uninterested. This expert also believes that developments on the ground are propelling toward further militarisation of the crisis and the increased likelihood that regional players might be provoked into direct intervention. He was alluding to the Saudi proposal, aired on the fringes of both the Brussels and Munich meetings, of a ground offensive by the Arab coalition.
The meeting of the members of the Syrian Support Group in Munich did not lead to any new resolutions. Instead, it ended in a call to resume negotiations, echoing that which concluded the Vienna conference that was held in the framework the Geneva 3 talks but that failed to make any progress in putting its resolutions into effect. Nevertheless, the three chief managers of the crisis — UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov — announce an “optimistic agreement “ on a one week timeframe for putting the Geneva roadmap into effect. That timeframe may be ambitious, especially given the complicating factor of the ambiguities surrounding the mechanism for implementing the “cessation of hostilities”.
As the international meetings adjourned, the warring factions returned to business as usual in Syria and, indeed, escalated it, most likely because the tripartite agreement in Munich only gave them a week before the introduction of a limited truce. The Russians resumed bombardment of opposition locations in the countryside around Aleppo while the Kremlin announced that Russia would sustain its strikes against Daesh and other terrorist organisation. The Turks, meanwhile, are bombing Kurdish fighters in the same area. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that his country would continue to bombard the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria despite mounting pressures on Ankara from the US and Europe to halt the strikes against the anti-Daesh coalition’s main ally on the ground in Syria. Turkey “will not allow the Kurdish PYD to wage aggressive acts. Our forces have responded in the necessary manner and will continue to do so,” Davutoglu told Merkel. The Syrian government, for its part, condemned the Turkish violation of Syrian sovereignty and Syria’s representative at the UN submitted a formal letter to the chairman and members of the Security Council demanding action.
In a related development, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported a surge to 18 strikes by military aircraft that are most likely Russian against areas in the vicinity of Tel Rifaat in the northern rural outskirts of Aleppo. On the ground in that village there have been ongoing skirmishes between PYD forces (which include Kurdish and Arab fighters) and militant Islamist factions. Russian aircraft have also waged several strikes on areas in the village of Maara Al-Artiq in the northwest rural outskirts of Aleppo, prompting Washington to voice its suspicions of the intentions of the two sides with regard to the implementation of the statement issued by the International Support Group for Syria. However, Washington contained its official criticism to phone calls to both parties.
Saudi Arabia, which is currently leading three Arab Gulf/regional coalitions — the Peninsula Shield, the Arab coalition fighting in Yemen, and the Islamic coalition against terrorism — launched into angry exchanges with political and diplomatic figures from the Russian-Syrian exchanges that concluded with the Saudi proposal for an Arab ground offensive in Syria. Riyadh translated this into action by dispatching a number of its fighter planes to the Incirlik airbase in Turkey within 48 hours after the Munich session ended. Other Gulf countries rallied around Riyadh. The UAE announced that it could offer logistical support and the Qatari defence minister said that it would take a similar step to intervene if Riyadh requested. The “Thunder of the North” military manoeuvres that Saudi Arabia is currently hosting in area of Hafr Al-Batin supplies additional militaristic background music to the scene.
US President Barack Obama ruled out the possibility of committing US forces to a ground offensive in Syria after the US secretary of state spoke of a possibility of responding to Saudi and UAE requests for intervention to support the opposition in a drive to seize control of Raqqa, which is currently held by Daesh. Subsequently, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir announced that the commitment of ground forces to Syria to fight Daesh was contingent on the approval of the US-led coalition. He added: “The process of organising the forces and the size of this force will not depend on Saudi Arabia alone, but also on the international coalition.”
But the escalatory dynamics are still there, as was noted by the Russian response to the Gulf-Turkish threat of staging a ground offensive into Syria from Turkey. Addressing his remarks to Washington in an interview with Euronews TV, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev cautioned that a ground offensive would lead to a fully-fledged and protracted war.
At present, it does not look like further European meetings on the Syrian crisis will bring the parties back to the negotiating table, at least not until the outside rivals locking horns over the Syrian crisis have tested their muscle on the ground. Meanwhile, as the Gulf continues to try to build up momentum for intervention and the Turks sustain their bombardment of Kurds while the Russians persist in their military campaign in Syria, Washington is struggling with the demands of leading the military coalition against Daesh and the strains of counselling restraint and urging all parties to return to the instruments of diplomacy rather than the instruments of war.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.