By Horace Benetier
“Almost always in politics, the result is contrary to the prediction”. Never has Chateaubriand’s statement on the French Revolution in his Memoirs sounded as accurate as when it comes to describing the endless prophecies that have been wrong about the Syrian uprising since March 2011. First of all, against all predictions about his “imminent fall” by experts and top officials, Bashar al Assad has not fallen. Damascus has remained the Government’s stronghold despite sporadic battles in its outskirts while the “strategic road” connecting the capital to the seacoast, through the cities of Homs and Hama, is today under the control of the army and its auxiliaries.
By contrast, over the last year we witnessed the eviction, on the ground, of the so-called “moderate opposition”, embodied by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Only a few towns remain under its direct influence, most notably in the southern Hauran region (the cradle of the Syrian revolution) and in Kurdish territories. Elsewhere, jihadist groups prevail over the nationalist insurgency: three North-Eastern provinces, Al-Hasaka, Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqa, have fallen under ISIS’s terror, with the ravaged Aleppo being under its threat. Other parts of the country, like the region bordering Turkey, frequently see al Nusra Front, an affiliate of al Qaeda, playing a tragic cat-and-mouse game with the Syrian army.
Some will argue that the failure of the moderate opposition finds its roots in the lack of military aid by Western sponsors. Such a statement is inaccurate. Alongside their crackdown by the regime, the opposition constantly suffered from a lack of leadership and an inability to offer realistic solutions to the conflict, which has cost them their respectability at home and abroad. The inflow of weapons from Gulf countries since mid-2012 has undesirably eased the jihadist takeover of the uprising. Whoever is responsible for this move (Assad definitely played his card but Saudi, Qatari and Turkish networks also deserve their share of the blame), the reality of the Syrian uprising has increasingly changed from a pro-freedom struggle to a fight for-and-against international Jihad.
This new balance of power has led a wide range of foreign leaders to review their analysis about Syria. While keeping their pledge to help the moderate opposition on the battlefield (in order to satisfy Neo-Conservative lobbies in the US or France), Western capitals have realized that a rising terrorist group in Syria and Iraq poses a far bigger threat to their interests than the Assad dictatorship, for at least three reasons:
- Unlike Assad, the rise of ISIS endangers not only Syria but also neighboring countries, like Iraq, Lebanon and even Israel and Egypt
- As fear of anarchy and jihadist savagery mounts among local populations, waves of exiles are driven onto European shores, raising security and humanitarian concerns that April 2015’s tragedies sadly reminded
- A growing concern is rising in Europe that home-grown jihadists will sooner or later import Jihad to European soil (at least 6,000 EU citizens, among whom 1,500 Frenchmen, fight for ISIS according to a survey conducted by the EU Commission).
How can we deal with such a threat? Controlling the flow of jihadists travelling to/from Syria requires cooperation between Damascus and their countries of production (often Europe but also Maghreb, the Caucasus and the Arabian peninsula). Despite denials from both sides, it is now assumed that Western capitals have resumed talks with the Syrian intelligence service, at least since the US-led coalition started to bomb ISIS positions in September 2014. This cooperation, which entails border monitoring and exchange of information on jihadists, has already achieved some results on the military field: ISIS’s conquests have been stemmed while several of its leaders were reportedly killed.
In the longer term, however, no permanent solution can be expected through lethal means only. ISIS will continue to prosper as long as Syria offers it a sanctuary, in the same way Al Qaeda and Al Shebab emerged and thrived in the failed states of Afghanistan and Somalia respectively. If we don’t want Syria to become the new haven of international jihad for the next 20 years, no alternative exists but to strengthen the Government’s control over its territory and borders. This implies talks.
All actors have an interest in such talks: 1) to survive, the moderate/nationalist opposition needs to restore its political influence after a two-year decline amid internal divisions and the rise of jihadist forces; 2) no major international player – the US, EU, Russia, Iran and Israel – can tolerate the multiplication of jihadist playgrounds in the region and all need allies on the ground to stop the contagion; 3) the Assad regime, however cynical it may be, cannot bet on a long term victory insofar as its military superiority is doomed to decline if its economy remains in shambles. The skeptics will object that there is no chance to have all these folks sit together. And yet, it is déjà–vu in recent history. The Lebanese civil war, showed the capacity of fierce enemies to reverse alliances and define a modus vivendi. The present Ukrainian government is another example of old foes being able to mute their rivalries when a common threat is at stake.
To be effective, these talks have to meet 4 conditions. First, they need to be inclusive. The Geneva talks held in June 2012 and February 2014 failed mainly because Iran was not part of them and because Assad’s departure was set as a pre-condition by some. The apparent thaw in Iran’s nuclear deal, as well as the recent shift in anti-Assad’s rhetoric by Washington, pave the way for an inclusive dialogue involving the key actors of Syria’s war. Secondly, talks will need to occur along with a freeze in fighting: confidence-building measures, such as the UN initiative in Aleppo (suspension of aerial bombardment versus suspension of rocket and mortar fire) could be generalized in the country. Thirdly, international monitoring of Syria’s borders in order to halt the pouring of jihadists and weapons from neighboring countries (Turkey in particular) will also help build confidence between the participants. Finally, the security improvement expected from the prior conditions will be necessary but not sufficient to convince all actors that negotiations are the only option. Therefore, quick results must be settled as soon as the talks begin. A short-term bargain could consist in the Syrian Government announcing the pardon of nationalist opposition leaders and their inclusion in a transition Government, in exchange for a relief in Western sanctions that target the Syrian economy. Such acts of goodwill are likely to make these talks self-motivating and popular among the Syrian population.
In May, the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, will launch a new round of discussions on Syria. For the first time, an invitation has been sent to Iran. This is a hopeful recognition that, at last, the Syrian drama will be treated with Realpolitik, not with wishful thinking.
Horace Benatier (pseudonym) works as a civil servant in France. His main areas of interest are the Middle East and the Post-Soviet space, two regions he studied and regularly visits.