Vol. XLIII No. 12 March 24, 2019

Syrian War Reaching Conclusion

R Arun Kumar

THE six-year devastating Syrian war is reaching a conclusive stage. The eighth-round of UN-mediated talks between the government of Syria and the opposition that began in Geneva on November 28, signify a decisive phase in the nearly six years of Syrian War. These talks are to continue till December 15 and widely expected to bring the curtains down on the war that had led to the killing of over 3,30,000 citizens and the displacement of millions of people. In fact, the basis for optimism on these talks was laid on November 24 in Sochi, where at the initiative of Russia, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met and finalised the contours of the road map. The absence of US, the world’s premier superpower is significant.

Russia had entered the Syrian War at the request of Bashar al Assad in September 2015. President Putin had then declared the Russian goal as: “stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise”. Accordingly, Russia had not only provided military support to the Assad government and worked systematically to defeat the IS, but also moved its pawns strategically to ensure a political solution to the crisis. With the entry of Russia, the dimensions of Syrian war had completely changed. The Syrian government forces, with the able assistance of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, steadily advanced and reclaimed the territories once occupied by the IS, al Nusra, al Sham and other terrorist groups. The hypocrisy of US, which was actively promoting the militant opposition groups, even the IS and Al Qaeda, with the intent of ensuring a ‘regime change’, stood exposed. The US and its allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, were caught in their acts and in spite of their efforts, were unable to support the militant opposition groups withstand the military onslaught launched by the Russian-led forces.

US was not only militarily outsmarted by the Russians, but also diplomatically outwitted. The US, along with its allies, long insisted that ouster of Assad should be the pre-condition for any talks on Syria. This stand was the Achilles heel of even the UN initiated Geneva intra-Syrian talks. It needs to be remembered here that before these talks were initiated, two special envoys of the UN appointed by its then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon – Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi – had resigned specifically stating: lack of “serious, purposeful and united international pressure” to ‘take the steps necessary to begin a political process’. This is precisely because of the US, which was supporting terrorist outfits for the purpose of ensuring a regime change. Many countries like Russia, China and even India had voted against the US proposals many times in the UN.

Russia, cleverly moved its diplomatic pawns and succeeded in winning Iran and Turkey, two key players in the region to its side. Winning Turkey to its side, which had shot down one of Russia’s fighter planes only a year ago, was a diplomatic coup of sorts. After getting Iran and Turkey on board, Russia had initiated a parallel set of talks hosted at Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Russia and Turkey initially stood as guarantors to these talks and they were later joined by Iran as another guarantor. With all the key players involved and backed by the military advances made by them in recapturing Syrian territories from the IS, these talks gained certain credibility. This is a big geo-political shift, as for the first time, US was excluded from the talks, except as an observer, in spite of its involvement in the conflict and in the Geneva talks.

Seven rounds of talks were held in Astana starting from January 2017. A lot of spadework was done by the three governments to ensure that these talks yield results. The heads of the government were in regular contact and so are they with the Syrian government and opposition groups. One of the major impediments for these talks was ensuring a change in the stand of Turkey, which was earlier demanding the ouster of Assad. Russia used its diplomatic channels to convince Turkey to give away its demand and succeeded. Turkey was also persuaded to ensure the participation of all opposition groups in the talks. So, for the first time, Syrian government and opposition representatives sat face-to-face discussing the way ahead.

The main opposition groups together formed the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) to present a common view during the talks. They met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and were insisting on the removal of Assad. In the initial rounds of talks, they were led by Riyad Hijab, who was a former prime minister in the Assad government and was a hardliner, demanding nothing less than the removal of Assad. In the recently concluded Riyadh II talks, Hijab had abruptly resigned and he was replaced by Nasr Hariri. This is seen by certain commentators as conceding the fact that the opposition no longer commands the upper-hand in Syria. Moreover, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura had bluntly told the HNC representatives that ‘they had not won the war’ and cannot continue with their demand for removal of Assad any longer. This realisation seems to be slowly drawing on the opposition groups.

Except for Saudi Arabia and Israel, the US and opposition groups have got no regional power backing their objective of dislodging Assad from power. According to certain reports, even Saudi Arabia backed out from financing the opposition militias. Qatar, once an ally, backed out of the war, of course dictated by its own interests. Jordan too shifted its position. Egypt was always backing Russia and its efforts. Iran was with Syria and so was Lebanon. Turkey was assiduously won by Russia, by conceding its demands on the exclusion of Kurds from the negotiations. Thus almost all the regional players have accepted the reality, shifted away from the US positions, adversely effecting the US influence in the region.

Russian advance and the shifting ground realities in the region forced the US too, to slightly modify its earlier positions. The joint statement issued by Putin and Trump, when they met on November 11 in Vietnam suggests as much. Taking note of President Assad’s ‘commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections’ and stating that there is no military solution, but only a ‘political solution’, the statement declares that both the presidents: “affirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character”. For the first time, the US had accepted President Assad and Syria’s sovereignty. In a phone call to Turkish President Erdogan, Trump pledged to ensure the stability of a ‘unified Syria’ and committed that ‘US will no longer supply arms to the Syrian Kurdish militia’ whom Turks regard as terrorists. This also means indirectly, acceptance of its failure to carve zones of influence out of Syria, apart from dislodging Assad.

The Sochi declaration adopted by Russia, Iran and Turkey stated that the ‘sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria’ will be respected and that the three countries will work for the establishment of peace and stability. They had also endorsed the Russian proposal to host a National Dialogue Congress, involving the representatives of the Syrian government and all opposition groups to enable them draft a new constitution and hold elections on that basis, under UN supervision. The declaration also appealed to all the world powers to join hands in extending humanitarian assistance to Syria and help in its post-war reconstruction.

These Syrian developments symbolised by the meeting of three heads of the State – Russia, Iran and Turkey – in Sochi were enthusiastically welcomed. Some Iranian media outlets termed this as a precursor to the dawn of a ‘new middle-east’, where the influence of US, Israel and Saudi Arabia is diminished. It may be long drawn to concur with that conclusion. Nonetheless, it can be clearly stated that for the first time in the post 1991 world, the US was pushed to the sidelines. It succeeded in Iraq and in Libya, where Saddam Hussein and Gadaffi were ousted, killed and chaos was let loose in those countries. The US is able to dictate terms to these two countries and ensure its permanent presence, in the process unleashing unprecedented sectarian strife. For the first time, US was checkmated in Syria. It failed to dislodge Assad. It failed to gain a foothold in that country and hence a hold over Iran, a huge regional power. The significance of these developments should not be lost.