While all the ‘concerned’ State actors involved in Syria do seem to be highly desirous of establishing “peace” there, the war, strangely though, continues to be fought and is unlikely to come to an end unless a major comprise is reached at. Compromise, however, would remain a distant reality as long as the major actors continue to debate the very definition of ‘peace.’
Even though the G-20 summit seemed to have paved, only slightly though, the way for the emergence of a “grand coalition” in Syria, its prospects seem to have received a set-back. The summit and Obama-Putin meeting had taken place against the backdrop of Vienna talks held last week where all parties had agreed to a two-year time-table for ending the war.
Top diplomats from 17 countries had met in Vienna to discuss a way out of Syria`s nearly five-year conflict, which has left more than a quarter of a million people dead.
They produced a two-year timetable: a transitional government would be formed and a new constitution written within six months, to be followed by internationally monitored elections within 18 months after that.
But in a television interview with Italy`s Rai television, Assad said, throwing some cold water on the hot time-table, there could be no transition schedule for elections while swathes of Syria remained out of government control. `This timetable starts after starting defeating terrorism. You cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria,` he said.
If this wasn’t enough, President Obama reiterated the US’ unchanged and seemingly unchangeable position vis-à-vis Assad’s future. “I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power,” Obama said on the sidelines of a trade summit in Manila.
On the other hand, there is Russia which continues to express the need for ‘coalition’ strikes in Syria. As it is already co-ordinating with the French, Russia seems to be gradually coming round to the idea of such a ‘coalition’, especially after Putin’s successful verbal bombardment of the 40 countries providing financial assistance to IS.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they would be ready to work with the Western coalition striking IS if its members respect Syria`s sovereignty. Russia is `ready to develop with them such forms of coordination that of course would respect Syria`s sovereignty and the prerogatives of the Syrian leadership, ` Lavrov told state-run Radio of Russia.
So, the long and short of it is that all actors — especially Russia, US and Syria — continue to follow the positions they had taken and held on to for long. The war in Syria, which is being fought on multiple fronts, continues to be fought and it will go on unless a compromise is reached.
What can Russia compromise in Syria? Can Russia simply forget Assad and focus on securing its naval base in Syria? After all, if Syria is important for Russia, it is because of its importance in Russia’s strategic calculus rather than Assad’s personality. As a matter of fact, if Russia is willing to negotiate a ‘transitional government’ in Syria to be followed by fresh elections, it is tacitly envisaging a minus-Assad scenario.
On the other hand, the critical question is why a minus-Assad scenario is so much important for the US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar? Certainly, it is not merely Assad’s ‘charismatic personality’ that these countries and their leaders do not want to see in Syria. It is the very presence of a pro-Iran and pro-Russia regime that they need to replace with a pro-Western — and a Sunni of course — regime that would be more sensitive to their interests and more facilitating in helping them materialize their inter-continental energy-supply projects.
What can they compromise in Syria? And what can a minus-Assad scenario possibly mean for them, especially Saudi Arabia and its chief allies?
For Saudi Arabia, Assad is no longer the major issue to worry about; rather, it is Iran and the huge presence of its Revolutionary Guards in Syria. That is to say, even if Assad agrees to step down, this does not change anything for Saudi Arabia. Should the Iranians’ military presence be carried on in Syria, the situation may just start to develop on Lebanese line if the Alawite and Christian forces are put together into an “independent military group”, the one that would be exactly like the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Were such a scenario to take place and were this hypothetical Alawite-Christian group to make an alliance with Kurds, not only will Saudi Arabia as well as the US see their horns locked into another geo-political entanglement but Turkey will also be faced with a new threat knocking its borders.
Sensing such a possible scenario taking place, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already stated yet again that he is planning the introduction of no-fly zone over Syria. Erdogan also clarified that Turkey will not tolerate the advancement of Kurdish forces along the western bank of the Euphrates River, which could lead to the creation of a “Kurdish corridor” near the Turkish southern borders.
The long and short of it is that the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey do want to see Assad’s exit from Syria, but the scenario that would develop following this exit will, in no way, allow them to radically alter the Middle-East’s political landscape to their advantage. Similarly, it is the post-Assad scenario that has become all the more important for Russia and Iran, given that a protracted fight in Syria will leave an impact on their economies. Iran’s inclusion in these talks, apart from being a diplomatic success for Moscow, also highlights how Russia and Iran are trying to construct a post-Assad scenario together. Putin is going to visit Iran and we shall soon have a glimpse of their future policy.
On the other hand, the question that has been debated at some length in G20 and Vienna talks is no longer merely confined to Assad’s rule; it has been expanded to include and secure the position of all the actors in a possible ‘post-Assad’ Syria.
It is already an obvious reality that nobody is going to win this war, especially when Russia and the US are now directly involved. Some sort of a compromise has to be reached and it is this ‘politics of compromise’ that is shining like a ‘bright star’ in the highly disturbed constellation of the Middle East.
If Russia is to secure its naval base in Syria and if Turkey and Saudi Arabia want to avoid another Lebanon-like scenario where they will be permanently pitted against guerilla forces, they need to let the ‘bright star’ of negotiations and compromise enlighten their path.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at email@example.com
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