In his last briefing to the UN Security Council, UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen suggested taking advantage of the relative cessation of hostilities in the country to bring together the main regional and international stakeholders for exploratory talks over confidence-building measures to prepare the ground for a political solution to a crisis that has been continuing since 2011.
This article argues that Pedersen’s proposal will not produce the desired results and that a more effective alternative would be to encourage those stakeholders to agree on a single issue to begin with and then gradually resolve the others.
Since the outset, the Syrian conflict has in fact consisted of several conflicts across various divides: between the regime and the armed opposition, between US-led coalition forces and the Islamic State (IS) group, between Turkey and the Kurds, and between Israel and Iran.
With the interventions of various regional and international powers, the map of Syria became a weave of numerous conflicting agendas and interests. Today, ten years after the conflict began, the regime has regained control over around 70 per cent of the country. The rest is divided between Turkey, the Kurds, the US, the armed opposition and terrorist organisations.
Despite the recent clashes in southwestern and northwestern Syria, a relative calm does indeed prevail along the various fronts. This has largely been the case since Russia and Turkey signed the Idlib Agreement in March 2020 that brought about a ceasefire.
Some analyses maintain that the current calm is the product of a consensus reached among key stakeholders after they concluded that they had accomplished as many of their objectives as they could. The regime was also satisfied with the amount of territory it controlled after factoring in the economic and military costs of attempts to retake more from the militant opposition, the analyses said.
Moreover, Russia and Iran were pleased with their success in ensuring the survival of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and securing their influence and interests in the area. Turkey feared that new bouts of warfare in northern Syria would drive new waves of refugees into Anatolia, already the host of more than four million Syrian refugees. It had also found an acceptable formula for dealing with the perceived danger of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) near its southern border.
Israel was content with the occasional strikes it has been launching against Syrian areas it believes are controlled by Iran and could be used as staging points for Iranian offences against it.
But while most strategic research centres predict that this relative calm will continue for the foreseeable future, experts still caution against banking on what they describe as a fragile and provisional consensus. Not only is the Syrian crisis complex, it also interweaves with many other complex issues in the region. There always remains something that could trigger a flare up that could spiral dangerously out of control.
This is a main reason why various parties have seized on the current calm to propose ideas to bridge the gaps between regional and international powers and to encourage them to move towards conciliatory policies in the interest of ending the suffering of the Syrian people.
The UN envoy’s main mandate is to facilitate a “Syrian-led” political solution to the crisis in the country in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communique. The Resolution calls for the establishment of a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian system of government in Syria, a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and free-and-fair elections, in line with the provisions of the constitution, all administered under the supervision of the United Nations and in which all Syrians in the country or abroad can participate.
However, the UN has been unable to make any progress towards these ends. The 150-member Syrian Constituent Assembly made up of representatives of the regime, the opposition and civil society has made no progress in drafting a new constitution for the country in the five meetings it has held so far.
The UN envoy has been trying to convince the members of the assembly to convene for a sixth round, but most observers do not expect him to succeed because of the mutual recriminations between the Syrian camps and the divergence of views between Russia and the Western nations.
Indeed, the conflicting views and interests of the main regional and international players in Syria have been a main obstacle to UN efforts to fulfil its mandate in Syria. This is precisely what inspired Pedersen’s recent proposal to invite “key states to work with me on exploratory discussions on a package of concrete, mutual and reciprocal steps that are defined with realism and precision, and that are implemented in parallel and are verifiable,” as he said in his Security Council briefing on 24 August.
“Such steps are needed, above all, to help save Syrian lives, ease suffering, promote regional stability and further the implementation of Resolution 2254,” Pedersen said, which seeks a comprehensive and lasting political settlement to the Syrian crisis.
LACK OF REALISM
While the UN envoy’s proposal is theoretically sound and consistent with the principles and procedures for phased confidence-building measures in conflict-resolution, applying it in the Syrian case will not yield results.
The main reason is that the issues under dispute between the key states are not of a nature that can be resolved through confidence-building measures. For example, they have no shared conception of the future of Idlib or even of whether the Syrian regime has a right to reassert its sovereignty over it and whether to fight the terrorist groups that currently control it.
They cannot agree on the future of the militant factions that have been relocated to Idlib as a safe zone in the framework of the various de-escalation agreements. One of these groups is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a former Al-Qaeda affiliate that the UN Security Council, the US, Russia and Turkey have all designated as a terrorist organisation. Some quarters are now urging the US to reconsider this designation, which would make it possible to assimilate the HTS in the political process under certain conditions, thereby benefiting from its presence on the ground in Idlib.
Advocates of this idea argue that the organisation has undertaken certain ideological revisions to distance itself from jihadist fundamentalism and that lifting the terrorist designation would facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief to the people of the Idlib province and help pave the way for talks over the future of its capital city.
Needless to say, this suggestion, if implemented, would aggravate the already considerable tension over how to deal with the area. Turkey, even if it agreed with the lifting of the terrorist designation, would adamantly oppose any attempt on the part of the Syrian regime to regain control over Idlib using military means for fear of additional influxes of refugees into Turkey and because of the concern that terrorists would flee to other countries.
Other crucial and interrelated examples of why the UN envoy’s proposal will not work include the future of the YPG and the status of the Kurds in northern Syria, the future of the Turkish military presence in northern Syria, the US role in Syria, the impact of the Iranian military presence on Israel, the efficacy of the economic sanctions on Syria, the future of the Al-Assad regime and the question of reconstruction deals.
All these issues and more are highly controversial, and the differences over them are not only between pro-regime and anti-regime countries. They also exist within the same camp. Russia and Iran, for example, are reportedly at odds over rights to drill for natural resources and in other economic areas, their respective roles in relation to the Syrian government, and their areas of influence in the country, not least in the vicinity of Syria’s southwestern borders where the presence of Iranian forces would stir up trouble with Israel.
In the light of the multiplicity of issues, the complicated patterns of the divides over them and the depth of the divisions, it is highly unlikely that the regional and international powers will be able to reach a consensus over confidence-building measures acceptable to all the parties. It would be a waste of the currently available opportunity of the relative calm in the country to engage in exploratory talks that will lead nowhere.
Some analysts believe that direct talks between Russia and the US resulting in a comprehensive agreement on the various issues is the only way to end the Syrian conflict. This possibility is difficult to conceive, however, especially as there are no precedents to support it.
A more realistic approach would be to invite the key stakeholders and the two superpowers above all to engage in talks over a single issue at first, such as the question of Idlib and the fate of the militant factions there. If they could reach a consensus on this, it would open avenues to a series of further consensuses on other issues.
Certainly, an international consensus on Idlib would avert many complications. It would eliminate the multiple repercussions of any use of military force on the part of the regime to retake Idlib on the pretext of fighting terrorism. It would also encourage the regime to take positive steps towards a political solution and would help to resolve other issues such as the economic sanctions and obstacles to reconstruction.
Until progress is made on Idlib, the most that can be hoped for at present is a prolongation of the relative calm with a view to using it to deliver as much humanitarian aid as possible to the Syrian people.
* The writer is a researcher on security and crisis management.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly