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

Share

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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London