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.