Prospects of Peace in Syria

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 4 Mar 2013

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Berlin meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry on 26 February 2013 appeared propitious for peace in Syria. The divergence of policies and approaches of Russia and the US on how to resolve the Syrian crisis notwithstanding, both the leaders during their meeting focused on ‘common ground’ in addressing the crisis. Describing the meeting ‘quite constructive,’ Lavrov pointed out that only dialogue and deliberation can lead to peace, and stop death and destruction in the country, which has so far lost about 70,000 lives.

One of the major issues that afflict international community is that the resistance movement in Syria is no more indigenous as it is hijacked by religious extremist organizations like Al Qaeda. The opposition to Syria regime, called Syrian National Coalition too is affected by these elements. As a result of which, despite the willingness of some leaders of the Coalition to talk to Assad regime, the attempt has not been successful so far.

The Libyan experience shows that the weapons supplied to the rebels to defeat Gaddafi finally fell into the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates, and spread to other areas of Africa in lethal missions like the killing of the secularist opposition leader in Libya itself, or spreading extremism in African countries like Mali. Perhaps this development has made the Western countries including the US jittery in supplying weapons to the rebels in Syria. The US President, Barack Obama in a recent interview said, “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?” Besides the fear of extremism, the economic slowdown perhaps is another explanatory factor in Western hesitation to supply arms to rebels and engage in a protracted and bloody war. While the eager Sunni countries of the Arab world particular Qatar are supplying weapons to rebels, and offering Syrian embassy to them, this scenario has only protracted the sectarian conflicts in the Arab world.

The Syrian case also demonstrates that the Arab Spring has its darker sides as well. As Syria case demonstrates, the country has turned into a war zone with daily death and destruction with other fall outs like displacement, sliding of the country into poverty and underdevelopment, and sharpening of sectarian fault lines. The rebels’ confidence in toppling Assad with weapons from neighboring Sunni countries has led them to intensify the war, with reciprocal retaliation by the Assad regime. Reportedly, Qatar had sheltered the hope that the rebel success would be swift, and Libya would replicate in Syria, but that did not happen.

The point is: when the Assad regime is ready for dialogue, the opportunity must be seized by the rebels. The rebel groups seem to be highly fractionalized as a result of which any moderate voice, including that of its leadership, is trounced upon. Perhaps none of the players in the region would be supportive of continuation Assad regime for long, but the argument is whether a transition from Assad regime can take place in a peaceful manner.  It is daily death and destruction that is a cause of major concern. There is also an apprehension that the rebels might seize the chemical weapons and use them against their opponents. Kerry rightly argued, “A lack of a solution would result in an explosion of the state from the inside,” as “that would be a danger to everyone and would carry with it the worst kind of results.”

Russian and the US diplomats have met on many occasions in Geneva to deliberate on the issue. Lavrov also met with Hilary Clinton, the predecessor of Kerry, to find a commonly agreed solution. While the Syrian National Coalition leader Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib had earlier offered to join the dialogue process with conditions, currently he seems to be on a retraction mode. Lavov observed, “A few days ago it seemed that conditions for the sides to sit down for talks … were getting clearer. There were calls in support of a quick start to dialogue…But then came denials of such an approach. It seems extremists, who bet on a military solution to Syria’s problems and block initiatives to start dialogue, have for now come to dominate in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, including in the so-called (Syrian) National Coalition.” There seems to be a calculation on part of the opposition that it can defeat Assad regime by force. In this process, the civilians suffer. It is not to justify the use of force by either of the parties; rather the point is while there is a window of dialogue the opposition seems to be bent on resolving the crisis by means of violence.

It will be interesting in this context to examine how the international mechanism like the UN has fared so far in this crisis. Despite attempts by UN mediators, earlier Kofi Annan and currently Lakhdar Brahimi, the issue appears to be a difficult nut. And this nut is further hardened due to differences between big powers like Russia and the US. The meeting of Lavrov and Kerry is particularly meaningful in this context. Though the leaders discussed many international issues including Iran nuclear issue, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine, Syria reportedly consumed considerable time. Lavrov appeared optimistic when he characterized his meeting with Kerry as ‘quite constructive,’ adding that “it feels like the second administration of Barack Obama will aim to play a more constructive role when it comes to its foreign policy agenda led by John Kerry.”

The likely evolution of a common approach between Russia and the US will not only impact positively the course of the Syrian conflict, but will also have implications for many other international issues.

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Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include India-Russia relations, conflict and peace, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Mar 2013.

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