Amid the welter of bad news from Syria- seemingly confirmed news of the use of chemical weapons, estimates that the refugee population will grow to by the end of the year, Syrian deaths have exceeded 70,000, city after city has been laid waste, sectarians cleansing appears to be underway in the Allawite dominated area in North Syria and around the port city of Baniyas – the only positive news is the agreement reached between Russia and the USA after long hours of intensive discussion to convene an international conference by the end of the month to discuss the Syrian situation and to carry forward the implementation of the decisions reached in Geneva in 2012… Most analysts agreed with Lakdar Brahimi the Special Representative for Syria of both the UN Secretary General and the Arab League that “This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time". But they also agreed with the "The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step."
The devastation that has been visited upon Syria in the last two years has been shocking. What is even more frightening is the estimate of what lies ahead if the conflict continues. The UNHCR, Mr Guterres, says the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid, now 6.8m people, could exceed 10m by the end of the year and the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries would likely double to 3m. Neighbouring countries particularly Jordan are struggling to cope with the inflow of Syrian refugees who are now seen as threatening the social fabric of this relatively small neighbour of Syria.
The Syrian army has not collapsed nor do there appear to be any signs that the Assad regime is crumbling from within. The regime seems to have enough weapons in stock and is receiving new weapons primarily from Iran. Russian Foreign minister Lavrov has denied reports that any new weapons contracts have been signed with Syrian even while confirming that old contracts are being fulfilled. In the last few days the Syrian army and militias have been retaking areas the insurgents had captured earlier. On the other hand private donor support from the oil rich Gulf countries for the insurgents, has, according to some reports, shown a considerable decline following the designation by the Americans of the Islamist insurgent group, Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group. None of the donors, most with large investments in the West, wish to risk the imposition of sanctions or freezing of assets in case their donations are deemed to be assistance to a terrorist organisation. There is no doubt however that failing a settlement the struggle will continue and that the lead groups in the struggle will be the extremist Islamist groups whose patrons will probably not be deterred from providing assistance.
There are alarming reports that both the regime and the insurgents have used, albeit in militarily insignificant quantities some of the large stockpile of chemical weapons that is known to exist in Syria. Obama, having said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” has for the moment set aside these reports asking for more detailed investigation. Ostensibly the caution is dictated by the fact that the Americans and others do not want to be caught in the same situation as in Iraq where reports that Saddam possessed WMD justified the US invasion in March 2003 and led the Americans into a pointless and costly war. The reality of course is that Obama does not want to involve a war weary America in another Middle East conflict. And yet unless a settlement can be reached the American financial and material assistance, all theoretically non-lethal and amounting to $760 million, may prove to only the first instalment of what America may need to expend.
There is also the realisation that the Syrian conflict has now become a sectarian conflict with the ruling Alawite minority along with some other religious minorities being ranged against the Sunni majority population. Inevitably this has drawn into the fray not just Iran – a long time ally of Bashar al-Assad – but also the Hezbollah from Lebanon. Both have reasons other than sectarian affinity to help Assad retain power but this has provided an impetus for the influx into Syria of Sunni Islamists from all over the Middle East and particularly from Iraq where the Sunnis see the Syrian battle as an extension of their own effort to get an equitable share of power from the Shia dominated Maliki government. There is also little doubt that the assistance the resistance has been receiving from the Sunni governments and private donors of the Gulf has been prompted, as has been the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria, by the same sectarian considerations. Failing an agreement all these countries and groups will suffer further
Another neighbour, Turkey, which hosts some 400,000 Syrian refugees and is the main conduit for the assistance reaching the insurgents, is concerned about the Syrian Kurds and their links to the Turkish Kurds. Its apparently successful efforts at reconciliation with the Kurds in Turkey could be influenced by the turbulence in Syria. Equally importantly its own internal stability appears to have been shaken by the Syrian refugees as became evident a few day sago when a couple of bombs in the border town of Reyhanli, killed some 46 people. The Turks held Syrian intelligence responsible – a charge denied by Damascus – but it has left the Turkish authorities with the task of protecting the Syrian refugees dislike for who has been exacerbated by the bomb blasts. Turkish authorities have already suggested that this incident was a deliberate effort to sabotage the ongoing peace effort towards the formulation of which Turkey has also played a part.
On 5th May Israeli war planes bombed military installations near Damascus and while Israel refused to confirm this officially Israeli sources said the attack like an earlier one had been carried out to destroy sophisticated Iranian missiles destined for the arsenal of the Hezbollah. Whether this is genuinely the only reason for the Israeli aggression there is no doubt that this adds another unwelcome dimension to the Syrian situation. It is more than likely that such actions would continue unless some settlement is reached.
As mentioned earlier there is the expectation that if the conflict continues the exodus from Syria will continue. This will mean that Syria will be deprived of experienced administrators and those engaged in providing municipal and other services. The country already shattered by the two years of war will then collapse with incalculable consequences.
The need for finding a negotiated solution is therefore clear both for the sake of the suffering Syrians and for the region. But can such a settlement be reached. Agreement between Russia and the US has been possible only because the US has conceded that Bashar al-Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for the intra-Syrian negotiations. The insurgents however appear to be obdurate on this point saying that “any peaceful solution requires the immediate removal of Bashar al-Assad and the heads of his security apparatus; any solution that does not include these elements is rejected at the political level and by the people of Syria". Similarly the regime has talked of a “dialogue” with the insurgents implying that the regime would remain intact and would accommodate some of the insurgent demands within the existing system.
What can the Russians and Americans do to overcome this seemingly unbridgeable gap will be the subject of my next article.