November 24, 2015

SYRIA: Which Will Win — Adventurism or Prudence?

Oleksiy Volovych


Analyzing the dramatic situation in Syria and around it for the past almost five years, we are witnessing the chaos and all kinds of adventurous activities from both, the parties to the conflict, and external forces characterized by complete absence of rationality.

If there were such rationality, the parties to the conflict, instead of killing each other, would try to agree on somewhat mutually acceptable format of co-existence in the way of mutual concessions, and the third powers — would try to mediate, instead of taking the side of a party to the conflict and thus “adding fuel to the fire”.

Numerous examples from history teach us that violence begets only counter-violence, but, unfortunately, very few people are guided by the lessons of history. So far, neither the parties to the conflict, nor the external forces have been doing enough for the common sense and good will to win, and the Syrian conflict to be resolved at the negotiating table. Instead, dead ends are being created when a peaceful resolution of the conflict is actually impossible.

Many observers, including the author of these lines consider the current Russia's military actions in Syria adventurous. Maybe some readers may object: Are the actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular not adventurism? Just to be fair, it should be noted that the US and its allies have made many adventurous actions in the Middle East. First of all, the occupation of Iraq in March 2003, the consequences of which are still seen in the form of the civil war and terrorist attacks, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians over the past 12 years.

In his time as a young senator from Illinois, B. Obama subjected to withering criticism the administration of President G. Bush-junior for its adventurism and consistently opposed the war in Iraq before it began. Unfortunately, in 2011, B. Obama walked away from his pacifist beliefs and peacekeeping ideas. That year, the United States led the NATO military actions against Libyan Jamahiria, plunging the country into civil war and chaos for many years.

Professionally, the author of these lines had for several years in 1970s-1980s to work in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule, in Libya — under Muammar Gaddafi, to visit Syria under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad and to observe a pretty high standard of living and security among all strata of the population in those countries. It should be noted that in all three countries had been established the so-called “Arab socialism” of various modifications. Today it is painful to see the orgy of violence that emerged in these countries after the Western states' attempt to impose on them the Western-style democracy by force of arms. This West's adventure cost the peoples of these countries too much.

As for the situation in Syria, here we are seeing more reserved and cautious actions of the US and its allies than in Libya. Speaking June 7, 2015 at the press conference following the G-7 summit in Germany, Obama “confessed” that he has no strategy against ISIS, although the United States headed the coalition of more than 60 countries to struggle against this terrorist group back in September 2014. The statement of the White House has caused a flurry of indignation on the part of many American politicians, accusing him of inconsistency, indecision, weakness and lack of strategic thinking in the implementation of the US foreign policy. In response to these accusations, in many of his speeches, B. Obama said that America should not be a “world policeman” and decide — what the world should look like. In his address to the nation on September 10, 2013, Obama said, “I have spent 4.5 years trying to put an end to all wars, and not to unleash them.”

It is this B. Obama's “weakness” that Putin played on, accusing the Сoalition led by the US of doing nothing and “turning a blind eye to the ISIS”. Russian media spreads many publications in which the authors argue that the USA itself contributed to the formation of the Syrian opposition against the B. al-Assad, as well as the ISIS terrorist group, which later slipped out of the West's control. A similar precedent is said to have taken place in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Explaining its participation in the struggle against the ISIS, Moscow often talks about the very low efficiency of fighting of the led by the USA International coalition over the year. However, for some reason it silences the fact that the military units of the IS' army are usually deployed near settlements, and even within them, and that in case of massive air strikes could result in numerous civilian casualties. Indeed, despite the US aviation's targeted strikes on the ISIS' objects, civilian casualties could not be avoided...

So Putin is positioning himself more resolute and principled in the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East. And he decided to prove this in practice by sending a military contingent to Syria for the “decisive struggle” against the ISIS, and at the same time to support the Syrian government troops. As is known, the Coalition headed by the United States supports the so-called “moderate Syrian opposition”. Russia, acting almost on its own (except for Iran), is supporting the current Syrian government, or rather what's left of it, headed by President B. Assad. For this reason, Putin's proposal to establish a broad anti-ISIS coalition, including Russia, with which he spoke on September 28 from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, has not been heard by US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders. At the same time in Washington and European capitals, they often say that B. al-Assad has lost his legitimacy. But, according to a number of independent experts, this is a rather questionable in legal terms verdict, because the legitimacy of a leader of the country, in this case, B. Assad, is determined by the people in the course of act and deed, not by the leaders of other countries.

The Russian Air Force' military operations lasting for six weeks (starting on September 30, 2015), have not changed the situation in favor of the Syrian government troops. Nor have they changed the situation in the Middle East in favour of Russia. Rather on the contrary. Russia's military operations have caused quite a sharp criticism from the United States, Great Britain, Turkey and several Gulf Arab countries, not to mention the ISIS' threatening with terrorist acts on the territory of Russia.

Continued military operations of the Russian Federation and the United States in Syria could lead to a dangerous aggravation of the already tense bilateral relations. Thus, the US presidential candidate Lindsey Graham has suggested to shoot down Russian planes in Syria to protect the “moderate Syrian opposition”, supported by the United States. The same call has been voiced by other US presidential candidates (Chris Christie and Marc Rubio), as well as by senators and generals of the Pentagon.

It seems that the leaderships of Russia and the United States have finally realized the futility and impossibility of force resolving of the Syrian conflict. Therefore, Moscow and Washington began to think about seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis. In October there were active consultations between the Foreign Ministers J. Kerry and S. Lavrov, which resulted in (October 29-30 and November 14) two rounds of multilateral talks, attended by the Foreign Ministers of 17 countries — the USA, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Italy, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman as well as representatives of the United Nations (Stefan de Mistura), European Union (Federica Mogherini) and the Arab League (Nabil al-Arabi).

According to the joint Communique on the results of the negotiations of November 14, within six months a transitional government should be formed in Syria, and within the next 18 months — a new constitution has to be developed and presidential and parliamentary elections should be held. Besides, an agreement has been reached on starting talks (January 1, 2016) between B. Assad's government and the opposition to form a “credible and representing all religious confessions” transitional government, one of whose tasks will be to draft a new constitution.

However, the negotiators did not manage to overcome disagreements on the future of President B. Assad. Western countries are mostly in favor of President B. Assad's resignation. Thus, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said recently, “Now that every Syrian family is mourning victims of this war, you can trust me; Assad is no longer a man to be guided by.” At the same time, Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and other countries consider B. Assad legitimate President of Syria. Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov believes that removal of the leader does not mean the settlement of the conflict. As an example, he reminded that after the physical removal of S. Hussein and M. Gaddafi, the civil war did not stop either in Iraq or in Libya. And it's hard to disagree. UN Special Envoy for Syria, Stefan de Mistura has stated that only the people of Syria have the right to decide what role B. Assad should play in the post-war Syria.

Differences also remain as to which groups apart from the ISIS and associated with Al-Qaeda structures, should be recognized as terrorist ones. Naturally, negotiations with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups are out of the question. All the participants of the negotiations agreed that they (terrorist groups) must be destroyed. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015, the leaders of the USA and the Russian Federation are determined to intensify air strikes against the IS' bases and facilities in Syria and Iraq.

To organize and coordinate the negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition has the UN Special Envoy on Syria, Stefan de Mistura (diplomat of the highest professional level), who had been on a variety of diplomatic and mediation missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Rwanda, Sudan and in the former Yugoslavia.

The five permanent UN Security Council members agreed in the nearest future to adopt a resolution for a ceasefire in Syria, monitoring of which will be carried out most likely by the UN military observers. The negotiators agreed to hold the next meeting in about a month to estimate the results of the ceasefire and to begin the negotiation process between the “Syrian moderate opposition” and B. Assad's government. At this, S. de Mistura does not exclude that December 12 this year, after the end of the Climate Conference COP-21 in Paris, there could be held a summit at the level of Presidents on the Syrian issue.

All this is good, but for a successful implementation of the decisions of the Conference in Vienna, an essential detail is needed - the united Syrian opposition, eager to negotiate with B. Assad's government, to put forward reasonable demands and to compromise. If this does not happen, then all the decisions taken in Vienna will remain only on paper. Besides, even if a part of the Syrian opposition does agree to negotiate with B. Assad's government, there will be the other part of the “intransigent” or “immoderate opposition” that is sure to try to disrupt the process of political settlement.

Questions of a political settlement of the Syrian crisis were discussed also on 20 October 2015 in Moscow — during the Syrian President B. al-Assad's meeting with the RF President V. Putin and senior governors of Russia. During the talks, the sides also discussed issues related to the Russian Air Force's support to offensive operations of Syrian Armed Forces against the opposition and terrorist groups. V. Putin pointed out that, Russia is ready to contribute not only to combat actions, but also to the process of further political settlement in the country.

October 29 this year, during negotiations in Vienna, S. Lavrov gave the foreign ministries of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey a list of 38 people, which Moscow considers representatives of the moderate Syrian opposition, ready for dialogue with the B. Assad's government. The list of potential participants of the inter-Syrian dialogue includes former and current leaders of National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NKORS), as well as representatives of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), the Syrian National Council, the liberal movement “Damascus Spring”, the organization “Democratic Tribune», the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, Movement for a Pluralistic Society, the Communist Party in Actions, Building the Syrian State Party, and Syrian Unity Party. The list also includes representatives of religious and ethnic communities in Syria.

Naturally, this does not mean that the US and its allies will consider these lists final and will not make counter-proposals regarding — what organizations and bodies of the Syrian opposition should be considered moderate and willing to engage in dialogue with Syrian authorities. As it has become known, on November 15, at the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, B. Obama and V. Putin had the opportunity to discuss the situation in Syria and in the East of Ukraine in a short 20-minute informal conversation, which took place in the presence of the US President's Advisor on National Security Susan Rice.

According to the representative of the White House, B. Obama “... welcomed the efforts of all countries to counter the terrorist group ISIS and pointed out the importance of Russia's military efforts in Syria against this group”. Besides, Obama “reaffirmed... that he supports the full implementation of the Minsk Agreement, including the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the removal of all foreign military forces, the release of the hostages and the return of the section of the Ukrainian-Russian border under the control of the government of Ukraine”.

Thus, between the leading countries of the world, led by the US, and Russia there has been reached still quite shaky understanding on the settlement of the Syrian crisis. It seems that common sense prevails over the irresponsible adventurism. Time will tell — if it does.