Syria, tunnel and exit

The Damascus regime is winning its war for survival; Syria's conflict will continue and even escalate. In the morass, diplomacy remains vital to any progress. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 June 2014

Bashir al-Assad reportedly won 88.7% of those voting in Syria's presidential election on 3 June 2014. In itself the scale of his victory (nominally over two rival candidates) will mean little more than a reminder that his regime is not without support, even after three years of war and 160,000 people dead.

More than the election, two other recent events give a better indication of Assad's prospects. The first relates to the arrest in Marseilles of a 29-year old Frenchman on suspicion of the killing of three visitors to the Jewish museum in Brussels on 31 May. The suspect is reported to have spent time in Syria in 2013. If this is confirmed, it will intensify fears in France that the threat posed by paramilitary fighters returning to Europe from Syria's war is acute (see Alissa J Rubin, "Fearing Converts to Terrorism, France Intercepts Citizens Bound for Syria", New York Times, 2 June 2014)

France's attitude to this matter has become tougher, as reflected in the arrest of three French citizens on their way to Syria in 2013. The same NYT report says: “They had not harmed anyone in France or made plans to do so, according to the evidence at their trial in January [2014], but in France these days, seeking to fight in Syria is enough to bring a charge of plotting terrorism - and in this case sentences of three to five years in prison.”

France has also been, of all European states, the most vociferous in condemning the Assad regime. But it is now very concerned that many young French Muslims are going to fight that same regime - moreover, joining the “bad rebels” rather than the “good rebels”, and thus becoming suspects in the continuing "war on terror". Paris's fears are shared by many other western governments, and this helps explain the changing attitudes to the war: the Islamist danger is now believed to be so great that criticism of Damascus is increasingly muted.

The second event is a reported agreement that will allow Russia to supply Syria's air force with a number of Yak-130 jet trainers that can be readily used as ground-attack aircraft. The deal, for thirty-six aircraft, has been in an on-off state for nearly a year, but it now seems that the first nine will be delivered before the end of 2014. 

This follows news that a delayed order for twelve other fighter planes - the much more powerful MiG-29M/M2 multirole craft - is also going ahead. Four have already been constructed, and it is now reported that current negotiations could lead to initial deliveries by the end of 2014 (though the schedule set a date of 2016-17) (see Jeremy Binnie, “Russia firms up Syrian MiG-29 delivery schedule, numbers”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 4 June 2014)

A hard reality

The combination of these two developments gives a good insight as to why the Assad regime feels secure. A leading trend in the war is that te rebels have come to be dominated more and more by radical Islamist groups such as ISIL and the Al-Nusrah Front, leaving them and other al-Qaida-linked forces to cement their control of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

In consequence, western states now prioritise the threat of a revival of the al-Qaida idea in the heart of the middle east (see “Assad will win Syria’s farcical election…”, The Conversation, 3 June 2014); and thus sideline their declared foreign policy of entrenched opposition to Assad in favour of an undeclared policy of preferring to avoid his downfall. That choice may be uncomfortable and even embarrassing, but it is the hard reality.

On current trends the Assad regime will slowly consolidate its hold on the urban areas; then extend that control to much of the rest of the country (a process that may take over two or three years). Even this, however, would leave substantial areas in north and northeast Syria dominated by radical Islamist paramilitaries. Some of the latter would be prepared to use their newfound domains to plan attacks against both the territory and interests of their international enemies, including Britain, France and possibly the United States.

In these circumstances, what can be done to prevent conflict in Syria escalating - leading to 250,000 dead and many more millions displaced -before it collapses into an exhausting and exhausted stalemate?

A possible way out

The answer begins by acknowledging that the role of western states such as Britain is likely to be peripheral. There is, bluntly, little that they can do beyond providing support to the United Nations and regional governments as the latter try to respond to an appalling humanitarian disaster.

There are two possible ways forward, however. The first relates to the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Will influential forces there, government or private, continue to back their espective proxies: the Islamist rebels in Syria and the Damascus regime? If either of these lines of support were to diminish, especially at the same time, this might contribute to an early settlement. That prospect would be reinforced by an improved Moscow-Washington relationship, which in turn depends in part on the course of the Ukraine crisis.  

Insofar as western states have any influence in Riyadh and Tehran, they would be well advised to use it to foster movement in relations between these strategic rivals. This would be a rare, hopeful sign that - after decades of suspicion - the two regimes are capable of some agreement.

The second way ahead may not immediately appear related to the Syrian conflict, though it is. This is the United States-Iran negotiating process on the latter’s nuclear ambitions and intentions. If there is genuine progress in period until September 2014, that will create a greater prospect of an Iran-Saudi rapprochement. This is by no means certain: powerful, hawkish elements in both capitals are determined to sabotage any possibility of a deal. Again, though this may seem unconnected, thwarting these elements will be vital in improving the chances of ending Syria's war.

Even if some easing in the war can begin, and then be made to last, the costs of the war will be unavoidably immense. Any post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction will involve several decades' work, requiring huge help from multiple sources.

This scale of this task and the failures it represents should make the more thoughtful politicians and diplomats reconsider the proposal of a much strengthened United Nations capability for early intervention. This idea has long been opposed, but after the bitter and costly experience of 2011-14 in Syria it should at least be on the agenda.

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