13.01.2014 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Will the bloodshed in Syria stop?

rebel-fighters-in-southern-syria-dataOn the eve of the new year of 2014, it seemed that negotiator parties (USA, Russia and UN) managed to convince Syrian warring parties to sit down at the negotiating table in order to try to resolve the conflict peacefully. Even a specific date was designated for the next round of such a meeting called Geneva-2 – January 22, 2014. Representatives of the Syrian official government and the opposition gave their prior consent to participate in this event.

However, on January 6, 2014, the president of the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCROF) of Syria Ahmed al-Jarboe said that at first it was necessary to create favorable conditions for such a forum. Opposition members believe that the initiators of the conference, primarily Russia and the USA, did not provide “sufficient guarantees that would ensure the achievement of positive results from the Geneva-2”. According to them, an interim government should be formed at the conference, one that would take over power in the country, and participation of Bashar al-Assad in the political future of Syria should be excluded. Other requirements of the NCROF are the arrangement of humanitarian corridors in the territories controlled by the country’s government, and the release of opposition members from prisons. Ahmed Jarboe also said that the opposition does not intend to participate in the conference, if it is attended by a delegation from Iran.

One of the most representative members of the NCROF, the Syrian National Council, says that it “sees no reason to negotiate with the regime of Assad”. Earlier it was reported that 19 Syrian Islamist opposition groups refused to participate in the Geneva-2 talks. They include an influential Salafist group, the Ahrar al-Sham, whose ranks consist of about 20,000 fighters. According to one of the opposition field commanders, Ahmad Issa Al-Sheikh: “Anyone who goes to the conference will be considered a traitor…”. Naturally, at the conference there will be no representatives of the Islamists from among the foreign mercenaries and volunteers, who control much of the northern regions of Syria and are establishing Sharia law there.

At the Congress of NCROF in Istanbul on January 5–7, 2014, more than forty of its delegates declared their withdrawal from the coalition for various reasons. As a result, the final decision on the participation of the NCROF in the Geneva-2 conference was postponed until January 17, 2014.

Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that the flywheel of violence, spun in Syria, largely due to outside interference, cannot be stopped at present. The military and political crisis in Syria has gone too far. The country is in ruins and is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster, and the losses (more than 110,000 killed, about half a million wounded or maimed, over 3 million refugees and displaced persons) are proportionally comparable with the losses in countries participating in World War II (the population of Syria was 22 million before the armed conflict). The transition of this protracted armed conflict into the stage of peaceful settlement is prevented by the increasing fragmentation of the opposition and the unceasing outside interference. In 2011-2012, there seemingly were two opposing parties: the ruling regime, around which functionaries of the ruling Baath Party, representatives of Arab Alawite minority and law enforcement agencies were grouped, and the representatives of the Arab Sunni majority, moderate Islamist groups and the government troops who went over to their side on the other side. Today the situation in the country appears to be much more complicated and confusing. There has appeared the so-called third force, represented by radical Islamist groups, most of them consisting of foreign mercenaries. According to rough estimates, 12,000 well-trained and armed militias from 70 countries are fighting in Syria, 80% of them came to Syria from various Arab countries and Europe, and the rest came from South-East Asia, North America, Africa and the former Soviet Union. The terrorist organizations Islamic State of Iraq and Levant and Dzhagbu en-Nusra, both connected with Al-Qaeda, are the most well known in Syria. In addition, at least 43 radical Islamic groups form the so-called “Army of Islam”. By the end of 2013, these gangs became much more active and fought not only against government troops, but also sought to expand the territory under their control by forcing out units of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and capturing areas densely populated by Kurds, from where government troops had been withdrawn. Thus, the Kurds, who preserved their neutrality until recently, were brought into this civil war.

The military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (DUP) announced its statistics on the Syrian conflict. The self-defense forces of the Kurds allegedly killed about 3,000 militants of Dzhagbu en-Nusra and 376 soldiers of the Syrian Army in 2013. About 790 Syrian soldiers were taken prisoners, with most of these being released later. Armored vehicles and ammunition belonging to both the Syrian Army and the rebels were captured and kept as trophies. The losses of DUP amounted to 379 people killed. Today, we can now talk about the Kurds as another party in the Syrian conflict.

Recently, there were armed clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad in the north – in Aleppo and Idlib, in the east – in Hasaka province, and in the central part – in Raqqa, the jihadists captured a border crossing and warehouses with arms of the FCA on the border with Turkey. Growing losses in the ranks of the forces opposing Syrian government troops prompted the leader of Dzhagbu en-Nusra Fatiha, Abu Muhammad al-Dzhulani, to urge the conflicting parties to arrange a cease-fire. He proposed establishing a joint “military-Islamic judicial authority” that would take up the responsibility for settling disputes arising between “brothers-in-arms”.

Against the background of continuing unsuccessful attempts of the UN, Russia and the USA to make the warring parties sit down at the negotiating table in Geneva, the external interference in the Syrian conflict continues, and in some cases even grows. While the Lebanese military and political group Hezbollah, Iran and radical Shiite militias in Iraq provide the government of Assad with military and other assistance, the Syrian opposition is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Sunni groups, the USA, and some EU countries. Riyadh and Doha are the most active in this respect, spending billions of dollars on the armed opposition and the recruitment of militants worldwide. It seems that in their desire to put an end to Assad’s regime by any means, the concerned external players are ready to continue sponsoring this war, which is increasingly becoming an arena of open confrontation between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. At the end of 2013, FSA units received modern multiple rocket launchers and other types of heavy weapons with the help of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are negotiating with Washington to remove current restrictions on military aid to the Syrian opposition.

Since the convening of a peace conference on Syria remains a big question, and such a meeting is unlikely to bring any positive results, under conditions of continuing fierce fighting, it seems appropriate to discuss the situation in Syria and around it at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Invited to this meeting should be representatives of all countries that are involved in this conflict in one way or another. A UN Security Council resolution on ceasing all foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs could be the first step towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Subsequently, they would seek an immediate cease-fire, and convening of the Geneva-2 conference without any preconditions. If peace initiatives under the auspices of the United Nations do not find any support in Syria and in the neighboring countries, it would be possible to decide on a peacekeeping military operation or even a humanitarian intervention. It would be very important to exclude the penetration of new militias into Syria through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. After that, an operation should be carried out to separate the warring parties, disarm the militias of international terrorist organizations and radical Islamist groups. Only then, would Geneva-2 acquire a meaning and become a platform to search for a compromise, ways of national reconciliation and concord, and a basis for the construction of the future Syrian state, where all major ethnic and religious groups of Syria (Sunni Arabs, Arab Alawites and Kurds) could take their rightful places. Otherwise, the probability of the division of Syria into several enclaves, or turning it into a second Somalia, will increase, and lead to an escalation of violence in the neighboring countries (Lebanon and Iraq). The region can become immersed in an atmosphere of chaos for a long time, and become a stronghold of international terrorism.

Stanislav Ivanov, a leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies RAS, PhD in History, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook