Nearly two weeks ago, Russia and the U.S. met for a ‘frank and constructive discussion’ of Syria’s future. A few days later, Russia started bombing opponents of the Syrian regime. As the awkward tango between both world powers thus continues, the Syrian crisis threatens to plunge not only the country but the entire Middle East in ever more chaos. A political solution has never seemed as dire and as far off at the same time. Paradoxically, however, Russian involvement may actually become the critical action needed to return to a political solution. Given that the right responses follow suit. (Featured Image © Freedom House)
The Problem with Russian Influence
In my last Impression, I wrote why the Assad regime in Syria serves as a crucial part of Russia’s bid for regional and global influence. Whatever the cause for such sudden action, the Russian airstrikes painfully confirmed my interpretation. Putin is determined to keep Assad in power. Certain researchers have concluded that Syria is lost to Russian influence. Such fatalism is sometimes coined as restoring Russia’s former status as a powerbroker and re-establishing balance in the Middle East. The opposite may be true. Letting Russia gain power by propping up the Assad regime could be a very costly affair. I stand by my previous point that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future, but wish to clarify that this reasoning boils down to three main arguments.
Letting Russia gain power by propping up the Assad regime could be a very costly affair.
Firstly, the Syrian civil war would continue. Nearly the entire Syrian opposition is targeted when Russia claims to solely bomb “terrorists”. Lacking a simultaneous political compromise with the affected Syrian population, Russia actually threatens to enlarge support for the opposition. Secondly, Assad’s restoration would feed into extremism and, ultimately, the Islamic State (IS). In addition to Assad’s (tacit) collaboration with IS, the group thrives on turmoil and may find it easier to recruit when the enraged opposition grows even more radical. Finally, the “cold war” between regional stakeholders would heat up. Saudi Arabia and Iran most notably vie for influence in Syria. Allowing the Iranian side to consolidate would result in a fierce increase of support for the Syrian opposition.
Supporting the Opposition
Letting Russia gain influence in the region, hardly seems like a solution when taking these arguments into account. It does, however, seem near impossible to turn the tide and prevent a further escalation at this point. By offering military support to Assad, Putin has currently eliminated the possibility of brokering a political solution. Negotiating power has shifted decisively in Assad’s and, on a regional scale, Iran’s favour. As I argued, it is a matter of time before the Syrian opposition and regional supporters such as Saudi Arabia respond in kind.8 Assuming that these events are likely to follow, the sole thing that could perhaps bring a political solution back in sight is to once again shift power away from Assad and his allies. It is a long shot, but nonetheless a worthwhile option to explore.
How could it work in practice? Seemingly counterintuitively, western countries should call for Assad’s removal now more than ever. More still, such statements should underline the legitimacy of the demands made by the opposition. Western countries should sit down with opposition groups and regional stakeholders to publically stress their engagement. The argument that this support would further polarise the opposition is a logical fallacy. After all, even without western support, the crisis is bound to polarise. Instead, such western support would ensure an increase in negotiation power for Assad’s opponents.
The question remains which “western countries” should take the lead. The U.S. is stuck in awkward requests for Russia to back down, which suggests they either want to see Russia fail or gave up on Syria altogether. Instead, the European Union (EU) as an organisation may very well step up its game.10 While the EU approach to the crisis is questionable and its unity is under pressure, its members share a common interest in stemming the flow of refugees. Conversely, the risk of escalation and thus an even larger flow of refugees is likely because of Russia’s airstrikes. This means that an inclusion of Assad into negotiations, as some countries plea, becomes impossible precisely because of Russia’s overt support. Joint action by the previously divided EU becomes a far more likely option. Once united, the European states have the potential to become a major source of political support for the Syrian opposition.11
Once united, the European states have the potential to become a major source of political support for the Syrian opposition.
Understanding the Opposition
Who to gather around the table, may not even be such a difficult question. Contrary to popular belief, the Syrian opposition is not eliminated or even disintegrated. For example, the Southern Front is a promising new group in the fight against Assad. While the opposition is complex and thus difficult to grasp, it is clear that the past year has seen increased efforts by all groups to unite around a political solution.
Contrary to popular belief, the Syrian opposition is not eliminated or even disintegrated.
Another inoperable belief is the artificial division between “moderate” and “radical” opposition. Conservative Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham have recently stated their support for a political solution and many fiercely oppose the Islamic State. A sober analysis of their clout in Syria requires such groups to be part of any meeting.
Lastly, it would be naïve to expect opposition groups not to collaborate militarily with Al-Qeada affiliate Jahbat al-Nusra (JN). They are appreciated by the opposition for their incredible efficiency and, at least for now, prioritise the fight against Assad over imposing their extremist ideology. While western countries are right in opposing political inclusion of JN, it would be futile to demand from other opposition groups a military break with it.
If the involved groups pledge their opposition to both Assad and IS, there is little harm for the EU to politically back the opposition. In fact, it could help the opposition to further organise, which can only increase their negotiation power.
The Syrian crisis has a regional scope and the interests of countries opposing the Assad regime should be addressed as well. Failing to do so could easily result in increased military support to the opposition by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. To minimise military escalation, it is key to appease regional stakeholders. Vague promises cannot serve as a solution. Instead, frank and free discussions should be organised and the stakes of involved countries should be acknowledged. Only by pledging the EU’s full support for a suitable, political solution could further devastation of Syria be prevented.
If the EU effectively counterbalances Assad’s increased power, this could pave the way for renewed international negotiations. In the face of a stronger and western-backed opposition, Russian and Iranian support for Assad could become untenable. Granted, it would be an exaggeration to believe that this is a certainty. Both countries have a lot at stake in Syria and therefore it remains to be seen if increased international pressure could achieve an agreement to remove Assad and his trustees. Still, a political attempt at dealing with the Syrian crisis should not be discarded in advance on the preconception that it might not work. Especially when the only alternative seems to be military escalation.
A political attempt at dealing with the Syrian crisis should not be discarded in advance on the preconception that it might not work. Especially when the only alternative seems to be military escalation.
Assuming that international pressure works, an international mediator should be appointed. Ideally, this mediator is appointed by the United Nations Security Council and is considered neutral by all regional and global stakeholders. While the EU could contribute the knowledge it gathered during its talks, it cannot serve the role of mediator. Due to its tense relations with Russia, the latter is unlikely to agree. The recipe of frank and free discussions, especially between regional stakeholders, should continue. Iran would have to be at the negotiation table, by means of shuttle diplomacy if necessary. Conflicting interests and proxy wars will continue to exist in the region, but a negotiated resolution for Syria is possible. For example, prior to Russian airstrikes the Saudis had stated their willingness to discuss Syria with Iran.
To conclude, returning to a political solution is possible, be it difficult. It would not be easy and a multitude of hurdles may prolong the Syrian civil crisis even if such an approach is pursued. Therefore, a long term perspective is needed when dealing with this situation, but action to prevent further deterioration is needed as soon as possible.
With special thanks to Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst for his aid in writing this article.