07.02.2018 Author: Petr Lvov

Syria: Long Way off to Peace


The Intra-Syrian Dialogue Congress held on January 30, 2018 in Sochi, which was missed out by the major opposition forces – the Sunni organizations supported by Saudi Arabia and the USA, and the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forceswhose participation was opposed by Turkey, was doomed in advance to the lack of quick and tangible results. It is very difficult to talk about peace, a new constitution, and the establishment of an interim government without representatives of the majority of the Sunnis and Kurds. In addition, many Syrians are not ready for a peaceful settlement and intend to wage a war.

The foreign players are also not ready for peace. Turkey has not completed its tasks. Iran has its own vision of the situation. Israel intends to eliminate Iran’s military presence in the Syrian Arab Republic. The US is willing to strengthen its positions in the East of Syria in the oil-rich districts and create its military bases there.

In general, the situation remains complicated, and the war has not ended. The fact that militants shot down the Russian SU-25 fighter jet using a MANPAD missile on February 3 is an additional confirmation of it.

Bashar al-Assad got assistance too late when the situation had been formed already and almost fixed. It was necessary to bring troops in the SAR in 2012, or at least in 2013, when the Syrian Armed Forces were still battle-worthy, and mainly foreign mercenaries fought against Damascus, and not the Syrians themselves.

It is true that the ISIS is practically defeated. However, the armed opposition controls a significant part of the territory or rests calmly in the de-escalation zones. The opposition supported by the West is unwilling to accept any settlement, all the more so under the terms of Russia, forcing the resignation of Assad or division of Syria into three zones of influence: the Kurdish, Sunni, and minority territories.

The ISIS defeat in mid-December 2017 did not mean the end of the civil war in Syria. The main issue remains: whether it is possible to exterminate the forces of the Syrian Sunni opposition armed and financed by the GCC states, Turkey, and the West, and how to do it. It was they who rebelled against the Alawite minority of al-Assad. The Sunnis make up the majority of the population of Syria. And their troops have not been destroyed. Moreover, they feel comfortable in the de-escalation zones established under the Agreement in Astana. Meanwhile, their political leaders live in the EU states, Qatar, and Turkey and demand the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, groups of the terrorist organizations outside the ISIS such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham and other fragments of Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as numerous smaller extremist groups, are not defeated, as well. They are acting in the territory of Damascus, Eastern Ghouta, as well as in the provinces of Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, and in the South and South-West of Syria. Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel, Qatar, and to a large extend the Turkey stand for them.

In addition, the entire East of Syria is under the control of Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the Americans who control two-thirds of the country’s oil and gas fields, and who do not want to return under the control of the central government.

The most important question for the region still remains – the confrontation of the US-Saudi Arabia-Israel coalition against the Shia coalition led by Iran. The Syrian conflict is important for the US and Saudi Arabia, as well as for Israel, just to weaken Iran. Israel does not even conceal that it is preparing for a real war against Iran in Syria and against Hezbollah.

It seems that initiating a peace process involving forces that will never go to reconciliation with al-Assad is a more difficult process than previously thought. As a result, a diplomatic breakthrough in the matter of the political Syrian settlement discussed in Sochi on November 22, 2017, by Presidents V. Putin, T. Erdogan, and A. Rouhani was not reached. As a consequence, the Congress on the reconciliation held in late January in Sochi did not bring the expected result. The United Syrian Sunni Opposition supported by Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel, and Qatar etc. refused to attend (it demanded unconditional resignation of al-Assad and regime change), while Turkey strongly opposed the arrival of the SDF Kurds. It means that only representatives of those who support al-Assad and those who signed a truce with him (mainly local tribal leaders and moderate opposition politicians) attended the Congress.

Earlier, a similar event in Geneva was also on the verge of failure because the opposition demanded the resignation of al-Assad as a precondition.

As a result, de-facto partition of the SAR took place. Syria is divided into the de-escalation zones (de-facto – zones of military presence) between Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US (with the participation of allies and proxy forces of each of these countries). The Kurds represented by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) obtained oil. At the same time, the US started to establish several military bases in the Syrian territory.

We should finally understand that the war in Syria is a war of conservative Sunnis relying on the conservative regimes of the GCC and the West against the “revolutionary” Shiites led by Iran. There are two groups of external players. On the one hand it is the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, on the other – Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In addition, we should take into account the participants that joined them (both the states and the proxy forces). It is absolutely clear that due to obvious reasons and the power of the first coalition, the number of its “adjacent” participants is much larger (all the NATO, all of the GCC and most of Arab states).

From the very beginning, it was very difficult to rely on the agreements within the second coalition as the guarantees of the peaceful settlement in Syria. There are too many contradictions. It concerns the control over the transit transport and energy corridor to the Mediterranean coast, as well as the preservation of the regime in Damascus (all the three participants have a different visions on this issue).

One more important issue is the reconstruction program of Syria. And the question is – how to get the money? According to the UNO estimates, it requires at least 300 billion dollars for Syria reconstruction and the return of the refugees primarily from Turkey. 80-100 billion dollars from this sum are required to recover the Russian de-escalation zone. It is clear that Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara will not pay for the destructions made by terrorists and opposition militants with the help of funds from the US, Qatar, the KSA, the UAE, Kuwait, etc. But if this matter and the “restoration fund” are submitted to the West and the GCC states, it turns out that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have fought on behalf of multibillion and very profitable orders of the companies from the countries that unleashed a civil war in Syria? This is nonsense.

The US Administration plans to keep its military presence in Syria, but now with the creation of the government under its control in the occupied territories of the SDF. Obviously, this is completely contrary to the plans of the Turkey-Russia-Iran triplet and actually creates prerequisites for the partition of Syria. At the same time, the zone controlled by the Americans looks much more attractive than the zone of responsibility of Russia – Iran – Turkey: it is less destroyed, it has a large part of Syria’s resources, it has an important infrastructure significance. It results in Ankara’s military operation in the area of Afrin and its intention to take control over all the border areas with the SAR up to the Iraqi border.

Another aspect is the continued training of militants by individual parties to the conflict in dozens of camps of interested parties (in particular, Americans, Turks, etc.) throughout Syria and around its borders, especially that with Jordan. They all have their own goals, but the US is preparing its “own” militants against al-Assad, to whom they did not promise anything. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Israel do not hide their plans to strike at the positions of Iranian troops and Hezbollah in southern Syria and at the positions of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

In this course of events, Damascus is put in a difficult situation by its opponents. For only the Free Syrian Army have 30 thousand people. Another 25 thousand of the ISIS militants are scattered along the Euphrates and in Idlib. No less than 10 thousand other armed groups of the opposition are in the South-West of Syria, etc. B. al-Assad has no more than 40 thousand soldiers. Plus about 40 thousand Iranian soldiers and fighters of the Shiite armed groups from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Syrian Air Force almost does not exist unlike that of the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Riyadh is building up a military coalition against the SAR among some Arab countries, including the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt. The preponderance of forces is surely not in favour of al-Assad and Iran with Hezbollah. Under these conditions, it would be better for Russia to create an operating system for grinding down the enemy resources, which would make the struggle of the opposition supported by the US and the GCC states with al-Assad if not unpromising then extremely costly and unprofitable. The war also operates with the concepts of efficiency, in other words with the balance of expenses and benefit.

That is, in fact, the answer to all sorts of questions and statements about the end of the war in Syria. Undoubtedly, the United States, the West, and the local regional players like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and Turkey will continue pursuing their policies, including through the local proxy. Only a symmetrical policy of strengthening the al-Assad regime (or the creation of a more capable authority possessing a broader support base) can oppose them.

The US goal is perfectly clear – to keep control over the leading region in providing the world with oil and gas, to control the main sea transport routes from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, that is the flow of goods from Europe to Asia and vice versa (the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, etc.), and to oppose the penetration of Russia into the Middle East in every possible way. It includes the blocking of the Russian gas supply to the EU by land from the south – through Turkey and Syria, either the Turkish Stream or the South Stream through Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to the Mediterranean coast and further to Greece and Italy.

The overthrow of al-Assad is now a priority for Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. They are consistently solving their task. It results in the ineffectiveness of the Astana and Geneva negotiation processes, as well as the Congress in Sochi that has had no effect.

Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”