Syria

A chance for peace

Print edition : January 22, 2016

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference after a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria at the United Nations in New York on December 18. Photo: Andrew Renneisen/AFP

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a peace process to end the war in Syria. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP

People stand in line to buy sweets on the occasion of Prophet Muhammad's birthday in Damascus on December 23. Photo: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS

The UNSC resolution on Syria takes into account the ground realities in the region, but Western leaders persist with their contradictory statements.

THE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL (UNSC) resolution on Syria, passed unanimously on December 18, is the first attempt to offer a road map to end the conflict in that country, which has been dragging on for more than four years and claimed more than 2,50,000 lives. The Obama administration in the United States took the main initiative to move the U.N. resolution after seeing the writing on the wall. The rebel forces supported by Washington have almost completely faded from the war zone. The Syrian army is advancing on all fronts. In the last week of December, opposition fighters were allowed to retreat from parts of Damascus province that they had occupied for the last two years. Most military experts expect Aleppo to be completely liberated by early next year. The historic city of Palmyra, according to Syrian officials, is on the verge of being liberated. Observers of the region have not failed to notice that the American push for a ceasefire only gained momentum after the Russian military intervention and the consequent reverses suffered by rebel groups.

The U.N. resolution makes no demands for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The “Bashar must go” chorus orchestrated from Washington is fading and is now barely a squeak. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their Islamist proxies in Syria are the only ones still loudly demanding an immediate exit of the President. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, on a visit to Moscow after the passage of the UNSC resolution, stated that the Obama administration was no longer demanding the immediate sidelining of the Syrian President. “The United States and our partners are not seeking regime change in Syria,” he said. The focus, he added, was “no longer on our differences on what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad”. It has been quite a climbdown from his earlier stance. Washington now prefers a transitional government to be put in place in Damascus which will include elements from the opposition.

The UNSC resolution provides a time frame for establishing a lasting ceasefire and the holding of elections. According to the resolution, a “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian” interim government should be put in place in Damascus within six months and “fair and free elections” supervised by the U.N. should be held 18 months later. The resolution has stressed that “the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”, making it clear that the transition process will be Syrian-led. This is the position that consistent allies of the Syrian government such as Russia and Iran have been advocating since the time outside powers started getting deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. The resolution also clearly states that when a truce comes into effect, it will “not apply to the offensive or defensive positions” held by globally designated terror groups like the Islamic State (Daesh) and the Jabhat al Nusra.

Washington and Moscow have agreed to jointly draft a list of terrorist groups operating in the region. It is, however, common knowledge that the so-called moderate groups that the West wants to prop up are virtually non-existent on the Syrian battlefield. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to the media in New York, said that the passage of the UNSC resolution was “a clear response to the attempts to impose solutions from outside on Syrians on many issues, including those regarding its President, Bashar al-Assad”. Russia also succeeded in getting the resolution to specifically target the financing of the Daesh. Moscow has accused Turkish individuals and companies connected to the top echelons of the government of having extensive financial dealings with the Daesh.

The West, however, is still trying its best to put a time frame for Assad’s eventual exit. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking after the unanimous approval of the U.N. resolution, demanded an assurance that negotiations on Syria’s future should include assurances about Assad’s departure. Kerry, after taking a seemingly reasonable stance in Moscow, said soon after that Assad could not remain the leader when peace talks commenced.

The Americans pretend that they do not want regime change but at the same time want President Assad to step aside.

The Syrian Ambassador to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, while reiterating his country’s readiness to participate in talks to bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict, criticised “the glaring contradictions” in the stance of some Security Council members such as the U.S., the United Kingdom and France on the issue of non-intervention in the internal affairs of his country. The Syrian President has made it clear that he is going nowhere and that only the Syrian people will be allowed to decide his future. After the Russian military intervention, the Syrian army is making steady progress on all fronts and may be on course to a decisive victory by early next year.

Elections, as envisaged by the UNSC resolution, are to be supervised by the United Nations. The Syrian people will get an opportunity at that time to decide the fate of their leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in the third week of December, reiterated his government’s stand that it would “never agree with the idea that a third party, whoever the party is, has the right to impose its will on another country”. Putin said such an act would be a violation of international law.

Observers of the region do not set much store by the peace process initiated by the U.N. because the rebel forces fighting the Syrian government today mainly comprise jehadi forces like the Daesh, al Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham. These groups continue to have the tacit support of important states in the region like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

At a conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh in the second week of December, Syrian opposition groups backed by the U.S. and the so-called “Friends of Syria” once again reiterated their demand for Assad’s exit. Among the groups invited to Riyadh was the Ahrar al Sham, described as the most potent fighting force after the Daesh and the al Nusra Front in Syria. It has the full backing of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

But like other militant groups that were earlier backed by these two countries and projected as “moderate”, the Ahrar al Sham has also now moved closer to the Daesh and the al Nusra Front. Recent reports suggest that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is backed by the West, is also a shadow of its old self with most of its fighters either giving up arms or defecting to the al Nusra or the Daesh.

A joint statement was issued at the end of the Riyadh conference calling for the setting up of an interim government in Syria. The statement said that Assad and his associates had to step down immediately after the formation of an interim government.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has scoffed at the U.N. peace plan. He said that the war in Syria could only be ended with Assad’s departure. The most difficult task that the U.N. faces is to get the disparate opposition groups to the negotiating table. Many of them do not want to negotiate with the government in Damascus and are opposed to the concept of a secular Syria in which religious and ethnic minorities will be sharing power. The Ahrar al Sham had walked out of the Riyadh conference claiming that the “Muslim identity” of Syria was not recognised. Assad said that the groups attending the conference in Riyadh were terrorists. “They want the Syrian government to negotiate with terrorists, something I don’t think anyone would accept in any country,” he said in a recent interview with a Spanish television channel. He said that many of the groups were backed by foreign governments. At the same time, he emphasised that he was more than willing to talk “to the real, patriotic national opposition”.

The Obama administration was no doubt aware that it was backing terrorist groups in Syria. The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) had warned at the very beginning of the conflict in 2012 that Salafist groups and the Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Daesh, were in the forefront of the fight against the secular government in Damascus. “If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” and that the Daesh “could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq”, the DIA report warned.

But the Obama administration continued to turn a blind eye to the propping up of the jehadi groups by Washington’s close allies in the region such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while continuing to loudly insist that “Assad must go”. Obama continued with his vilification of Assad and the secular government in Damascus even after the creation of the Islamic State carved out of Syrian and Iraqi territories.

A new report by the renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that the American military was so alarmed by Obama’s mollycoddling of jehadi groups that they secretly passed on intelligence on the Daesh and the al Nusra Front to Damascus through German, Israeli and Russian channels.

Hersh also claimed that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff deliberately undercut the Obama administration’s effort to funnel arms to jehadi groups. Hersh’s article said that the American military leadership was angry because American weapons were reaching unvetted jehadi groups and also because the White House was unwilling to challenge Turkey and Saudi Arabia for their support of extremist groups in Syria.

Obama, for that matter, may not be all that serious about the latest U.N. peace plan for Syria. Three days after his Secretary of State said that the U.S. was not for regime change in Syria, Obama contradicted him by once again repeating that “Assad should go” before the formation of a transition government.

The Russian Foreign Minister has said that he is not very optimistic about the prospects of a durable peace in Syria, given the contradictory statements being made by leaders of states supporting the rebels in Syria.

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