Peace possible in Syria as political landscape changes

The terrible butchery could end now that the US and Russia both want to finish the war


Gloomy predictions precede this week’s Geneva II peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old war in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry says the meeting is about a mutually agreed political transition in Damascus, while the Syrian government insists it should focus on how to deal with “terrorism”. Nobody expects President Bashar al-Assad to share power, still less step down, when he controls most populated areas of the country. Meanwhile, his opponents, fighting their own bloody “civil war within the civil war” inside Syria, are killing more of each other – more than 1,000 in the first fortnight of the year – than they are of the Syrian Army. Amid scenes of almost farcical rancour and division, the Syrian National Coalition decided at a meeting yesterday in Istanbul to attend the meeting in Switzerland.

But the sceptics could well be wrong in underestimating the significance of what has changed in Syria and internationally over the past year. Making peace in Syria is so difficult because of the sheer number of players with conflicting interests, but a change for the better is that far fewer of those players now expect to win a clear victory or fear suffering a calamitous defeat. The US and its European allies have become more interested in containing the conflict than in getting rid of Assad. By the same token, Iran and Hezbollah no longer fear his overthrow, an outcome that, in the recent past, they considered an existential threat. The tipping point was last year’s decision by the US and Britain not to launch air strikes against Syria in the wake of the chemical weapons attacks in Damascus on 21 August, which might have escalated into the kind of air war waged by Nato against Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011.

There are further reasons behind pressures for de-escalation, even if the conflict cannot be brought to a complete end. It is evident that the US and its allies are more frightened of an Assad defeat, which could open the door to an assortment of jihadis, than they are of his victory. It is not surprising that European intelligence services have been talking with their Syrian counterparts about the 1,200 European jihadists operating in Syria. It may be a little late in the day for such worries, but there is no concealing the depth of their concern about the speed and strength of the resurgence of al-Qa’ida-type movements in Syria and Iraq. The Europeans claim the discussions in Damascus were narrowly focused, but rebels of every stripe will be wondering what information is being given to a Syrian government that will kill them if it can catch them.

The US and the Europeans now genuinely want to end the war, something they have claimed to want since 2011 but which – for all their lamentations – always sounded somewhat hypocritical. Put another way, they wanted the war to end but only if Assad was overthrown or stepped down; and, since his forces have never held less than 13 of the 14 provincial capitals, this was a recipe for the war to continue. Until early last year, many foreign politicians, diplomats and intelligence officials believed that Assad was bound to go. But this was never likely to happen without a regime split or full-scale foreign military intervention.

At the time, the states and movements being weakened by the war were the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah – all enemies of the US, western Europe, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. As for the jihadi groups, it seemed preferable to Western intelligence for them to be heading for Syria rather than to Afghanistan, and their ability to flourish there was underestimated. This was the private view of many Middle Eastern politicians such as Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former Iraqi national security adviser, who told me last summer that the Syrian civil war “is the best option for the West and Israel because it knocks out Syria as an opponent of their policies and keeps Iran busy. Hezbollah is preoccupied by Syria and not Israel”.

There was a further piece of self-deception on the part of the US, western Europeans and, to a lesser degree, the Saudis: this was to draw too great a distinction between the al-Qa’ida of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other jihadi groups. The former was demonised as the epitome of evil; but jihadis who avoided the Osama label might be used opportunistically as convenient allies against Gaddafi and Assad. Thus American officials in Benghazi in 2012 seem to have had no problem in having friendly chats with people who soon after were involved in the storming of the US Consulate and the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens.

The comforting belief in a radical difference between al-Qa’ida, with its ideology of armed struggle against the Christian West, and the rest of the jihadis who want to focus on transforming the Muslim world may have been true once but, as US analysts have begun to recognise, is out of date. Certainly, that picture is not true of Syria or of the civil war raging within the rebel movement, in which media reports frequently suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is under attack by more moderate movements but, strangely, includes among those  elements Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria.

In fact, some members of the anti-Isis rebels, such as those grouped in the Islamic Front, have a record of equally extreme sectarian violence. It was reportedly Jabhat al-Nusra and members of the Islamic Front who, in December, massacred 32 Alawites, Christians, Druze and Ismailis in the town of Adra, to the north-east of Damascus. And when it comes to fighting the Kurds in north-east Syria, the supposedly moderate, secular Free Syrian Army has been happy to fight alongside Isis, sending tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds fleeing into northern Iraq.

It is difficult to be optimistic in the face of such butchery, but the US and Russia are now closer than ever before on an agreement over ending the war. The Syrian proposal made in Moscow last week for a ceasefire in Aleppo, along with a prisoner exchange and an aid delivery to besieged rebel enclaves, may be propagandistic and made to wrong-foot the opposition. But the very weakness and disarray of the rebel groups means it has become easy for Damascus to make such  offers because the opposition is no longer a serious competitor for power. Just possibly, the war may soon begin to wind down.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?