Among the most important developments in the Syrian crisis over recent weeks has been the joint statement issued recently by the US, the UK, Germany, France and Italy on the Syrian elections scheduled this year.
The statement says that the elections would be neither free nor fair, and that whatever the results, they will not change how these countries approach the Syrian regime. It reaffirms the commitment of the signatories to a peaceful solution on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and reiterates their determination to press for accountability for the most serious crimes that have been committed in the country.
Towards this end, these countries will continue to support the international commission of inquiry and the efforts of UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen. The statement also calls on the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to engage seriously in the political process and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas in need.
Extremist organisations earlier had succeeded in asserting their control over most Syrian territory, while the regime and its supporters controlled around 15 per cent.
The intensive Russian aerial intervention brought the defeat of those organisations, primarily the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, the remnants of which withdrew to Idlib province in northwestern Syria near the border with Turkey. Meanwhile, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) succeeded with support from US and Western military experts and air cover in paralysing IS in northwestern Syria.
After these developments, Russia set in motion a political process in Astana in Kazakhstan. By the end of former US president Barack Obama’s second term in 2016 and into the first years of his successor former president Donald Trump, the political vacuum had given way to a contest over conflict management.
Military hostilities then resurged on two main fronts. In Idlib, Russia and the Syrian army and its Iranian and Hizbullah allies resumed the battle to eliminate extremist organisations and liberate the province. In response, Turkey launched a political campaign in conjunction with an initially limited military intervention that it billed as coming to the defence of three million Syrian civilians.
As the campaign escalated, with sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit backing from the West, Ankara and Moscow reached a truce. Under the terms of the Idlib arrangements, as the agreement was called, Turkey pledged to disarm the militias of their heavy weapons and to separate the extremist from the “moderate” militias.
In the years since the truce, the Idlib front has continued to experience intermittent flare-ups in hostilities. Sometimes, the Syrian army and its allies would advance, or Russia would strike militia targets. At other times, Turkey would respond with military actions as it brought in more and more forces and built more military bases. The outcome of this dynamic is what is essentially the status quo in northwestern Syria: a permanent Turkish military presence.
The second front is in northeastern Syria, which was under the control of the SDF with military backing from some NATO forces, air cover, and around ten, mostly American, military bases. Trump then announced his decision to withdraw US forces from the region, which encouraged Turkey to intervene militarily here as well, ostensibly out of fears of the emergence of a Kurdish state and heedless of the US protection the Kurdish forces still enjoyed because they had made it possible for the US to declare victory against IS and justify pulling out of Syria.
The upshot in the northeast is that Turkey has established a military presence there as well. The most recent development is the new missile system that the US Biden administration has introduced, further entrenching the US-NATO military presence and postponing all thought of Damascus and its allies reasserting control over the whole of Syria.
IMPASSE IN THE NEGOTIATIONS
The political process led by the UN since the start of the Syrian crisis has gone nowhere for various reasons.
One was that the negotiations were with civilian activists or political opposition figures who did not represent actual forces in the field. This was increasingly problematic as Islamist militias dominated the scene, especially extremists like IS and Al-Qaeda. Another main reason for the lack of progress has been the fragmentation of the opposition, which eventually assumed the form of “platforms”, one in Turkey, another in Riyadh, a third in Egypt and a forth in Moscow.
The latter was virtually an extension of the Syrian regime. The Russian military intervention ultimately depleted the impetus of such initiatives, which gave way to another process called the “constitutional track.”
But perhaps the most important reason for the failure of UN-sponsored efforts was the Astana Process that Russia launched together with the two main regional powers intervening militarily in Syria, Iran and Turkey. Moscow cast this initiative as a peace process, but in fact it was a conflict-management process that prevented a military/political escalation between the three occupying powers in Syria.
The significance of the joint statement by the Western powers is that it vetoes any peace process in which the West is not included. It is equally clear that no political settlement is possible when there are military stalemates in which no side holds the upper hand.
Among that plethora of regional and international stakeholders, including the superpowers, none can claim to enjoy sufficient power to impose an acceptable UN-sponsored settlement that would offer the Syrian people a way of building their political future. Against the backdrop of the unpredictability of present regional and international circumstances, most of the key players in the Syrian crisis are merely scrambling to gain positions of advantage.
Any prospect of a settlement is also hampered by a regime that is set more on its own survival and scoring a victory that on restoring stability and reconstruction. The foregoing factors cast a bleak shadow over attempts to steer Syria back to peace and increase the chances that the suffering of the people will continue for some time to come.
*The writer is former assistant minister of Foreign Affairs, and professor of political science.
*The English version of the article is published according to an agreement with the Independent Arabia website.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly