24.05.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Spectre of Syria Talks is an Illusion

23434343The recently held meeting between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, leading as they were ISSG, in Vienna regarding establishing ‘peace’ in Syria was yet another failure in the long list of failures the crisis has seen since the beginning of the conflict in the region in 2010-2011. While the talks continue to fail to yield any meaningful result except in terms of setting new dates for more meetings, the West, its political leadership and the media alike, too continue to fail to pay attention to the actual cause of the failure: non-stop supply of weapons by the U.S.’ Gulf allies to the Syrian “rebels.” Hence, the U.S. attempts at making Russia agree to Assad’s exit. Whether Russia would agree to this stipulation or not to end the war is a moot question; however, what is absolutely certain is that the U.S. has largely failed to convince its “allies” to stop funding terror outfits in Syria or even agree to tolerate Assad as Syria’s ‘legitimate’ leader. The talks, as it stands, cannot be hoped to yield any result when Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to add more and more fuel to the fire, with their super-ally, the U.S., standing unable to control it. For some, this situation marks the end of the U.S. supremacy in the Middle East.

From all accounts, the U.S. has failed to fulfil commitment to intensify its support and assistance to ‘regional allies’ to help them prevent the flow of weapons, fighters, or financial support to terrorist organizations across the borders in Syria, as stipulated under the US-Russian joint statement of May 9. If anything, the support for extremist groups by Turkey and Saudi Arabia has only increased. In Lavrov’s stark description, “We see supplies of tanks to Syria and when suicide bombers use tanks for terror acts, it is something new in the crisis.”

The stubbornness seemingly lies with the House of Saud. This was quite evident in the statements issues by some officials of the Gulf countries after the meeting. After the ISSG meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir actually held out the usual threat of resorting to ‘Plan B’ that invariably involves an ‘official’ increase in the supply of weapons and even deployment of troops to Syria. He stated, “We believe we should have moved to a ‘Plan B’ a long time ago. The choice about moving to an alternative plan, the choice about intensifying the military support (to the opposition) is entirely with the Bashar regime. If they do not respond to the treaties of the international community … then we will have to see what else can be done.”

Following in the footsteps of its enemy-turned strategic ally (Saudi Arabia), the Turkish President Recep Erdogan aggressively stated on last Tuesday in Istanbul (even as the ISSG was in session) that Turkey will unilaterally act on Syria in self-interest. Blaming both Russia and the U.S. for the support they have been extending to some “terrorists” i.e., Kurds, Erdogan outlined the way forward to accomplish speedily what they have been aiming at, but unable to accomplish, since February when ceasefire agreement was reached between the U.S. and Russia.

The cardinal objective both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been trying to achieve is to use this ceasefire period to recover the ground they have lost to the Syrian army. While they continue to blame the U.S. for its inaction, it is a fact that their own strategy has utterly failed in the face of an aggressive and organized Syrian army’s counter-assault.

The Syrian army continues to gain ground in the various battles being fought in Syria, as some reports indicate, today. The Syrian army has, reportedly, temporarily cut off the road between the capital Damascus and the southern province of Daraa, after the rebels in the town of Khan al-Shih approached the road, prompting the Syrian army to unleash an offensive against that area. Hence, Saudia Arabia’s possible resort to ‘Plan B.’

The ‘Plan B’ is, as some other sources indicate, already in the process of implementation. A startling indication is that the Syrian “rebels” now have portable ground-to-air missile launchers at their disposal. While it is not a mystery to understand who supplied these missiles, it is equally not so difficult to understand that the purpose behind the supply of such weapons is to enable the “rebels” to achieve tactical advantage over the Syrian army to prevent it from gaining too much of the ground. Not only is this supply of weapons a clear mockery of the ceasefire agreement, but also an open indication of the fact that the war cannot end, and it will not end, unless the terror groups’ supply chains are completely cut off.

This is not for the first time that Saudi Arabia and its allies have threated to use or actually used military force while the peace talks were going on. This is what Turkey did in the month of March when Erdogan launched its mini invasion of Syria and this is what both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are trying to do now. The purpose of such provocations is certainly to sabotage the making of any peace deal, prolong the talks and utilise the time to enable various groups to regroup, re-organize and re-weaponize.

The talks, as it seems, did not fail to lead to any breakthrough due to some ‘policy disagreement’. The talks failed due primarily to the U.S. failure to stem the tide of terror its gulf allies have unleashed, with or without U.S support, in the region. This yet another failure has proved, beyond the iota of any doubt, that mere cessation of fire cannot establish peace. Peace can be established only when terror groups are effectively cornered and their supply lines permanently cut off. This is a prerequisite that the U.S. must fulfil to demonstrate its seriousness in resolving this conflict which has already cost thousands of lives and displaced millions of people.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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