This policy brief examines developments regarding resolution of the Syrian issue, particularly in light of three key events: Russia’s announcement of a withdrawal, Geneva III talks and the opposition’s latest announcement that they wanted the talks to cease given increasing aggression on civilian areas. For the opposition belonging to the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Assad cannot have a role in Syria’s political future, particularly given that his regime and its allies is responsible for 95 per cent of the casualties in the country, far exceeding any other actors in Syria, including the Islamic State organisation.(1) This policy brief looks at the outcomes of the third round of Geneva III, what Russia has gained from its intervention and so-called withdrawal, and argues that any future proposals for Syria which maintain Assad’s position will result in continuation of fighting.
The Syrian issue is frequently described as ‘complicated’, given the many actors now involved in what started as a peaceful revolution calling for reforms and the fall of the Assad regime. The most recent developments in the Syrian issue, including failed Geneva III talks for the third time this year, the supposed Russian withdrawal from the country and the ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement that didn’t even last a month, indicate the country’s downward spiral will continue so long as there are no serious international initiatives to stop Assad regime airstrikes (which are by far responsible for the biggest loss of life in Syria since the start of the revolution) and allow real, substantial humanitarian aid to reach all areas of the country. This policy brief examines the most recent attempt at Geneva III talks, particularly the opposition’s decision to walk out of this round, and what Russia has gained from its overt military intervention and subsequent so-called withdrawal from Syria, and argues that any proposal that allows Assad to remain in power, even for a temporary period of time, will not allow for a peaceful political transition in Syria anytime soon.
Opposition does not see fruits of Geneva III
The Geneva III talks have thus far started and subsequently stalled three times since the beginning of 2016. Most lately, the opposition sent an official request to Staffan de Mistura, requesting that talks cease until Russia, the Assad regime and various sectarian militias respect the terms of the ceasefire. With the international community ignoring continued violations of the ‘cessation of hostilities agreement’ in Syria which began 27 February of this year (under a Russia-US agreement), and opposition forces viewing that as a key obstacle to successful talks, it was expected that Geneva III would end once again with no resolution, the same way it had in March and previously in February.
Head of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Dr. Riad Hijab, announced on 18 April 2016 that the HNC wanted cessation of the Geneva III talks, citing a number of reasons, the foremost of them being the regime’s refusal to allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid as prescribed by UNSC Resolution 2254, particularly articles 12 and 13. Hijab added that indiscriminate shelling, the continued detainment of political prisoners and increasing brutality of airstrikes indicated the Assad regime, Russia and Iran’s lack of seriousness about a political solution.(2)
Russia’s gains go beyond Syrian territory
In recent days, the regime and Russia’s airstrikes on Syria have intensified, particularly Aleppo and Idlib. While Vladimir Putin announced a Russian pull-out out of Syria on 14 March 2016, and the US-Russia brokered ‘ceasefire’ began about two weeks prior to that, the reality is that bloodshed in Syria never fully stopped, and there are credible reports that indicate Russia’s pull-out was more fanfare than reality.(3) This includes new Russian aircraft landing in Syria and intensified air attacks on civilian areas outside the regime’s control. Furthermore, Russia’s announcement could also be interpreted as a signal to the Assad regime – reminding the Assad regime that while it has made some advances in Aleppo post-Russia’s overt involvement, it could not have accomplished this without Russia’s assistance.
In summary, there are two gains for Russia from this pull-out: one is that it saved the Assad regime from complete collapse in northern Syria, particularly in the Aleppo province. The other gain is more directly related to Russia, which needs to assure a return on its investment in Syria: its pull-out was another signal and reminder to the international community that Russia has imposed itself as a key party to the resolution of the Syrian issue, whether this is acceptable to all other actors or not. Not only that, Russia has maintained its two point bases in Syria – the maritime base in Tartous and the aviation base at Humaimim air base, which ensure that its military presence in Syria is not completely erased.(4)
Assad’s future will remain point of contention
One of the topics of discussion during Obama’s visit to the GCC was the resolution of
the Syria issue. However, there remains contention about the future of Assad – the
opposition refuses to negotiate on this point, and rightly so, for a Syria with Assad
will never see stability, and that is an undisputed fact. The problem is that both regionally and internationally, Syria has become one of the key battlegrounds in the regional balance of power, yet the international community continues to fail to come up with feasible solutions in Syria and instead chases milestones which cannot occur until barrel bombing stops.
For example, before the latest round of failed Geneva talks, de Mistura said, ‘The Geneva talks’ next phase are crucially important because we will be focusing in particular on political transition, on governance and constitutional principles’.(5) While these are all goals for the Syrian people, a political transition cannot occur when one side clearly sees that the international community is not willing to stop it from committing internationally-prohibited war crimes.
Most recently, Obama’s announcement that 250 special operations forces would be deployed to join the fifty already in Syria solidified the international community’s intent to focus on only one of the symptoms of the Assad regime’s continued existence, the Islamic State organisation. While the IS organization is a threat to the stability of the region, Assad’s presence will allow it to grow and prosper, and the bloodshed in Syria will continue until his future is no longer up for debate. And when Assad’s future is no longer up for debate, there must also be an acceptable answer to another question: Who will take his place?
Note: Some points in this policy brief, particularly those relating to Russia’s
announcement of a withdrawal from Syria, first appeared in this Arabic policy brief
titled, ‘Nature of the Russian Withdrawal from Syria and its Implications’, which can
be accessed here: http://studies.aljazeera.net/ar/positionestimate/2016/03/160319162934051.html
(1) Hugh Naylor, “Islamic State has Killed Many Syrians, but Assad’s Forces have Killed More”, Washington Post, 15 September 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/islamic-state-has-killed-many-syrians-but-assads-forces-have-killed-even-more/2015/09/05/b8150d0c-4d85-11e5-80c2-106ea7fb80d4_story.html
(2) The video with Dr. Hijab’s full remarks can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4ZOZnrOtL8
(3) Maria Tsvetkova, “Exclusive: Russia, Despite Draw Down, Shipping More to Syria than Removing”, Reuters, 30 March 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-supplies-idUSKCN0WW0DJ
(4) Eurasia Review, “Transcript of Putin’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu Discussing Syria”, Eurasia Review, 15 March 2016, http://www.eurasiareview.com/15032016-transcript-of-putins-meeting-with-sergei-lavrov-and-sergei-shoigu-discussing-syria/
(5) United Nations Office at Geneva, “Verbatim Transcript of Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria Following his Meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem”, UNOG, 11 April 2016, http://www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/%28httpNewsByYear_en%29/145DF0625B2B6CF3C1257F920040B191?OpenDocument