On April 26, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned in his interview with the BBC Radio 4 news program Today that May is a dangerous month. He claims that the potential conflict between Israel and Iran, plus the expected US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, will exacerbate the existing situation and doom the efforts to offer a new lease on life to the management of the crisis in Syria, an effort that is now practically defunct. This UN official believes that the Astana process has reached its limits, especially after the attempt to arrive at a deal on a new Syrian constitution failed. Mr. de Mistura believes the Astana talks should be replaced by other venues with broader representation, in order to prevent what he called “Balkanization.”
The statement was quite a surprise to Russia. On April 20, Staffan de Mistura said something quite different while on a visit to Moscow. Timing matters. The UN envoy’s statement was made prior to a summit scheduled to take place on May 14 under the auspices of the Astana process. The foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Iran are currently working hard to get ready for this event. They met in Moscow on April 28.
Other forums are welcome, Mr. de Mistura said. The US and France are already seeking new venues to address the Syrian crisis. French President Macron has slammed the Astana process, stressing the need for an alternative. A group of nations was established by France several weeks ago that includes the US, France, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all working very closely with each other. The group is coordinating its activities with Turkey and Germany and intends to become a new forum for discussing ways to end the Syrian crisis. Mr. Macron believes that the French initiative is complementary to the Astana and Geneva talks. But do these forums need to be complemented? Is more always better? Is this approach appropriate when it comes to a crisis?
The US and France are calling on Arab countries to share the burden through military and financial contributions. Naturally they want the seats at the round table to be taken by their Arab allies, not Iran or Russia. The possibility of deploying troops from Arab countries is under discussion. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt are expected to join.
The leaders of the US and France have agreed to maintain “a strong and lasting footprint” in Syria. The presidents have vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring “open season to the Mediterranean.” President Macron promised to boost the French military presence in Syria during his visit to Washington.
And the goal is clear — the partition of Syria, with the rich Persian Gulf countries financing the rebuilding of large sections of the territory under the control of the US-led coalition. They want a partition, but the Astana process is premised on maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity. According to the Russian ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, some potential contributors are vowing “not to give a cent' until political changes take place in Syria." On April 24, the House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill that bans any American reconstruction support for the parts of Syria that are under the control of the government.
With other countries sending troops and providing funds to keep Syria divided, President Trump will be able to end, or at least reduce, America’s presence in Syria as he promised. But the troops won’t be headed home. They’ll be moving to Iraq. On April 26, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress that the fight is not over and that the US military will increase its operations on the Iraqi side of the border. That same day, the US defense secretary held talks with his Israeli counterpart, discussing the potential Israeli-Iranian armed conflict that will soon erupt. If that happens, US forces will be tasked with countering Iran from Iraq.
On April 27, US military officials disclosed that US satellites, surveillance aircraft, drones, and ships had stepped up their surveillance operations to monitor the movement of Iranian anti-air and ballistic missiles inside Syria. The move was explained by the “rising concerns they could be used to strike Israel in the coming days.” The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group is cruising near Syria, staying on high alert. That’s what the new venue is for. The Astana process is a venue for peace negotiations, but the US and France want a forum to discuss preparations for war. They prefer war zones to de-escalation zones.
Unlike the UN-brokered negotiations in Geneva, the Astana process has achieved a lot. Many human lives in Syria have been saved thanks to the cease-fire, which is largely holding. Large parts of Syria have been cleared of terrorists and are no longer battlefields. Gradual rebuilding has begun. This can be seen in the reconstruction of Aleppo.
The Astana talks have brought together Syria’s warring parties. The US is not excluded from the process, which can be gradually expanded to include other actors. The most recent meeting in Astana on March 16 extended the cease-fire in the de-escalation zones. Isn’t that much better than uncontrolled fighting that is responsible for so much civilian suffering?
Reaching a peaceful settlement in Syria is no bed of roses. But unlike all the other forums, Astana is the only one to have achieved real results. It’s not perfect. The YPG Kurds are excluded because of Turkey. The Congress of Syrian National Dialogue that was held in Sochi failed to agree on a new constitution. The Astana process is not all-inclusive but it has been blessed with a broad base. It’s the only forum with guarantors to monitor the implementation of its decisions.
A building needs a foundation to rest on. The Astana process is the platform that is best suited for the political management of the crisis. The creation of several forums, all working in parallel, will only dilute any achievements and stymie the whole negotiation process.
Does the goal of pushing Russia out of Syria and forcing a rollback of Iran justify reversing whatever successes may have been achieved and plunging Syria back into a never-ending free-for-all? Is it possible to create paradise in just one section of the country?
In 2003, the US flagrantly violated international law by invading Iraq in an effort to use that country to showcase the American way of life in the Arab and Muslim world. We all know how that ended.
There are many very specific problems in the part of Syria under the control of the US-led coalition. The way to tackle them is by creating an international, inclusive framework to help the Syrians solve their own problems, not by creating many venues separately pursuing the same goal. The choice is simple: the continuation of peace efforts, no matter how bumpy the road, or sliding into a new conflict. It looks like the US and France have chosen the second option. It’s a great pity that Mr. Staffan de Mistura is playing into their hands.