Op-ed

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A new opening for peace in Syria

by Rolf Holmboe

The Hill Times
September 21, 2016

A new, if fragile, attempt at a peace process in Syria could be in the making, even if it is unlikely to succeed as long as Bashar al-Assad is allowed to sabotage any real move towards a political solution.

A key event could be the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, where all the important stakeholders meet.

An important opening is a change of strategic outlook in Ankara, Turkey. According to reports, a Turkish intelligence chief visited Damascus in August, and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has indicated that Assad could stay for a transitional phase. This signals both a renewed engagement by Turkey to finding a peaceful solution and a softening of Ankara’s stance on removing Assad.

Another key opening was the United States and Russia’s agreement on a ceasefire that took effect on Sept. 12, even if it is being undermined by regime forces on a daily basis and the Russians are using a mistaken coalition airstrike on regime troops to make a collapse in the ceasefire look like the U.S. is to blame.

In fact, the main problem is that there are serious doubts about Russia’s real intentions. Many believe that Russia is playing a double game. All actions on the ground by the regime army and their Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies show that they are still pursuing a military solution centred on a siege and subsequent defeat of the moderate rebels in Aleppo. This, it seems in their view, would open the door for a rout of the moderate rebels altogether.

The only parties that can force Assad to accept a peace deal are Russia and Iran. But the main constraint is that Western negotiators only have carrots, no stick. This has allowed the Russians to ride two horses. Their first priority is clearly to pursue a military solution—and they have delayed and diluted negotiations many times to allow time for this to work. It is only their second priority to keep the door for a political solution open, should a military solution ultimately prove elusive.

In these circumstances, there are two factors that could swing Russia towards a political solution.

One is if Assad’s attempt to conquer Aleppo with allied forces fails. In this case, the Russians and Iranians would be faced with either having to commit to a new and open-ended military escalation to keep the military solution on the table, or they would need to change their strategy.

The other way would be to pick up a stick.

In August, the Turkish military together with Free Syrian Army rebels launched a major military intervention in northern Syria coupled with a certain diplomatic opening to Russia and the Syrian regime. But a failure of the peace attempt would be tantamount to Assad and Russia ditching Erdogan’s opening.

In such a case, Turkey, with a major military force now present just north of Aleppo, could simply take the stand that there will be no regime victory in Aleppo, thereby denying Assad a military solution. A Turkish stick-and-carrot approach could be pivotal in changing the dynamic of the war from a military to a political one.

Canada is already heavily engaged in the Syrian conflict, not least in the humanitarian field and in receiving refugees, but also as an important participant in the U.S. military’s Operation Inherent Resolve to destroy ISIS, the militant group also know as Daesh, ISIL, and Islamic State.

Canada can play a key role in applying diplomatic pressure to push the parties into a political process and not least argue for getting the basis for a peace process right.

At the risk of becoming just another failure, a peace process has to set the scene for a sustainable outcome of the war. Two main issues are: the need for joining military forces and for sharing political power in a new Syria.

First, the fragmentation of military power is a key challenge as the military forces on both sides have dissolved into more or less independent militias. In the likely absence of a major international stabilization force, there is only one possibility of re-establishing security and territorial sovereignty in Syria. That’s a merger between the Syrian army and the moderate rebels supported by the airpower and arms supplies of an international coalition.

Second, Syria is the scene of one of the most massive ethnic cleansing campaigns since the Second World War. Most of the majority Sunni population are either refugees or internally displaced, whereas most of the key urban areas and infrastructure are controlled by the regime.

The only possibility of re-establishing a viable Syria and avoiding a massive and permanent refugee crisis is to establish a new pan-Syrian political system, in which all sectarian groups participate and have checks and balances against the potential excesses of any one group. This is the Lebanese model and it is the only basis for establishing such a minimum level of trust and security that will allow for the return of refugees.

The conclusion is simple. The sustainable way to avoiding a fragmentation of Syria is the establishment of joint security co-operation and a political transitional system involving all the sectarian groups in an equal way. This is never going to happen with Assad still in power.

Any deal that hinges upon Assad remaining for any period of time is little less than double play aimed at achieving the exact opposite, namely a perpetuation of the Assad regime.

The losers in such a ruthless power game on the role of Assad would first be ordinary Syrians and neighbouring countries, because it would inevitably lead to a new cycle of violence, but it would also sink the whole region into an even deeper conflict between the region’s major Sunni and Shi’a population groups.

Rolf Holmboe is a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Danish ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (2012-2015).

Image credit: UN photo by David Manyua

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