The ceasefire in Syria and the upcoming peace talks in Astana could be the beginning of the long denouement in the war-torn country
The Syrian Arab Army now controls Aleppo, which means that the Syrian government once more is in charge of the main population centres in the country. Opposition armed forces are hemmed in around Damascus and in Idlib, while the Islamic State (IS) still holds the northern city of Raqqa. These forces, including IS, are on the back foot, disorganised, weakened logistically and disoriented. Largely abandoned by their benefactors – the West, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey – these fighters have either moved to great desperation in their violence or to near surrender. A ceasefire brokered on December 30, 2016 holds in most parts of the country. Peace talks are to begin on January 23 in Astana (Kazakhstan). Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, sections of the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the United Nations will have seats at the table. The United States and the Europeans will not be there.
The war will not end in Astana. Extremist groups such as the IS and the al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham continue to hold territory. Frustrated extremists who are unwilling to accede to the new situation have already begun to trek to the IS and the al-Qaeda proxy. For them, there is little to be gained from surrender or reconciliation.
For the past five years, the main slogan from the Syrian opposition and its Gulf Arab, Turkish and Western allies was ‘Assad Must Go’. It now turns out that the government of Bashar al-Assad will remain. It appeared, even in 2011, that the fall of Mr. Assad without major Western military intervention was unlikely. The Syrian military was far more disciplined than the Libyan military, which had begun to crumble before the NATO bombing on Libya. There was also far less daylight between the Syrian government and its military than there was between the Egyptian government and its military. Absent massive military force, there was going to be no regime change in Syria.
Direct Western military intervention was curtailed – thanks to the fiasco in Iraq – by the lack of domestic appetite in the West for the use of sufficient numbers of troops to fight in Syria. Regime change in Libya and its disastrous aftermath closed the door for a UN authorisation for war on Syria. By 2012, this meant that the Assad government could not be easily defeated. The policy shifted from direct overthrow to a much more cynical use of power. Covert shipments of arms went to rebels of various stripes to help delegitimise the government. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups came across the Turkish border and from Iraq as well as from the prisons of the Syrian government. Casualty rates edged upwards, with over half a million dead. The impossible promise of Western bombardment kept the war going in the hope that this would force Mr. Assad to negotiate. The West miscalculated. On September 22, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made some off-the-cuff remarks at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations. The tape from that meeting, released by WikiLeaks, reveals the general Western consensus on the Syrian conflict. Mr. Kerry indicated that the U.S. had watched the growth of IS, and had hoped to use it as a bargaining chip against the Assad government. As it turned out, Mr. Assad turned to Iran and Russia for help, which is when the Russians intervened directly in September 2015 – ending any possibility of regime change in Damascus and of an IS capture of Damascus. With Mr. Assad now safe, the Russians have begun to draw down their forces, largely to build confidence towards the Astana meeting.
By 2015, it had become clear to the Turkish government that neither would Mr. Assad’s government fall nor could Turkey protect itself from the detritus of its own making – attacks by the IS inside Turkey and a reopened war with the Kurdish resistance movement.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is ‘The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution’.
Source: The Hindu