Differences remain over Syria
The United Nations Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a resolution that could lay the roadmap for peace in war-torn Syria. The resolution has called for a ceasefire and talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. More importantly, the resolution establishes a timetable for the creation of a transitional, united Syrian government within six months and 18 months for a new constitution and democratic elections. Despite the resolution, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future remains a point of contention between the US-led and the Russia-led blocs. At an earlier inter-governmental conference in Vienna on the Syrian crisis, it was decided among both sides that the Syrian leadership will ultimately be decided by elections. The UN resolution went a step forward and addressed the question of who would control these elections and the rules. As per the resolution, the UN will conduct the vote. Global powers have agreed that a free and inclusive election would resolve the question of Assad’s future, although the UN resolution does not definitively address his fate. Moreover, it is absurd to think that the Russians and the Iranians would throw Assad under the bus after coming so far. It’s not going to happen. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday announced that his country is ready to scale up its military intervention in Syria, despite the UN resolution. Meanwhile, the US, its western allies and Saudi Arabia continue to push for Assad’s ouster. As per the UN resolution, the political transition is scheduled to begin in January, with talks set to take place between representatives of the Assad regime and an opposition coalition, put together in Riyadh after a meeting of Syrian opposition and rebels on December 10. The moment talks begin, a ceasefire is supposed to take effect. Suffice to say, the compromise deal has come after much of the damage has already been done. In the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the deal has come after, “one Syrian in 20 has been killed or wounded; one in two has been displaced; the average life expectancy in Syria has dropped by 20 years”. It is fair to argue that global powers have shown an appetite to work out a compromise deal for Syria only after being dragged deeper into the conflict. Besides question over Assad’s fate, there are other unresolved concerns that could significantly derail the peace process.
There is a lack of clarity on whether the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition truly represents the balance of forces fighting within rebel-held territory. Suffice to say, if there is a significant disconnect between the two, these talks will neither bring the desired result nor a ceasefire. However, the efforts to include a myriad of rebel forces in the talks will come at a significant logistical cost. Neither the key players—the Assad regime and the Riyadh-backed opposition—nor their regional and international sponsors have agreed on the list of terrorist groups to be excluded from the nationwide ceasefire. There is a largely clear consensus on the fact that the ceasefire will not apply to the Islamic State, al-Nusra front (Jabhat al-Nusra), and some other militant groups. Without arriving at a consensus on that list, the agreement will breakdown. Despite all official efforts towards arriving at a consensus over Syria, certain irreconcilable strategic interests remain. Besides targeting the Islamic State, Russia’s military involvement in Syria has also focused on targeting US-backed anti-Assad rebels. Moreover, Moscow has more than once stated that all those groups opposed to Assad are terrorists and that no so-called “moderate” opposition exists. Russia’s claim does have some merit. For example, one of two Russian pilots, who had ejected from the plane that was recently shot down by Turkish forces, was reportedly killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels. The Turkmen rebels, who are linguistically and ethnically Turkish, have been backed by the US-led western powers to dislodge the Assad regime. According to western sympathisers, they have mostly aligned with non-jihadist anti-Assad rebel groups. However, certain ground reports indicate that they have also been fighting alongside militant Islamist rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. A more glaring example is the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, which took part in the recent Riyadh conference. It is an ultra-conservative Islamist group, which is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah, an alliance that includes the al-Nusra front.In addition to the above concerns, there are other issues that need to be addressed. It is unclear whether a ceasefire and eventual peace agreement will take shape in areas under the influence of various rebel groups, including those forces “acceptable” to the West, but working in cahoots with al-Nusra. Without any clarity on this issue, any potential ceasefire or elections seems unworkable. It would be fair to suggest that the only potential gain made in this resolution is the possibility of short-term truce. It could, if only for a little while, put a hold on the bombing of civilian areas by both the Assad regime and US-backed rebel forces. Rhetoric aside, Friday’s resolution has changed little on the ground. Both blocs remain worlds apart on resolving matters equitably.