Syria: An up to date assessment of the current status of the conflict

During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian airbase in Syria this week, he delivered a speech thanking Russian military forces for their “efforts against terrorism” in the war-torn country. He declared “mission accomplished” in terms of the campaign to defeat ISIS, whilst announcing that he would begin withdrawing “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent from Syria. However, the Russian airbase in Latakia and the Naval Base in Tartous would remain “permanently”.

There is certainly an element of truth in Mr. Putin’s words. ISIS has lost over 95% of the territory it controlled in Syria, including all of the major cities: Raqqa, al-Bab, Deir Hafer, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, al-Qaryatain, al-Bukamal, and others. Gas and oil fields previously controlled by Daesh (ISIS) have all been retaken. In addition to the territory they have lost, ISIS has also suffered grave losses of military equipment, logistical damage, and now lacks access to basic resources. Tens of thousands of fighters have been neutralised.

Yet some ISIS pockets remain, notably the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, as well as a group of villages to the north of Hama, and some districts to the east of the Euphrates River. To rightfully claim a total victory, the remaining pockets must be cleared.

Moreover, the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian government forces began on the 30th of September 2015, with the stated objective of defeating all those considered ‘terrorists’ by Moscow. Al-Nusra front, formerly the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, maintains a strong presence in the country. It is the dominant force in the northern province of Idlib (which is entirely in rebel hands), still has an enclave near Daraa City, and is closely intertwined with other rebel groups in the area directly to the north of the government-held city of Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham, another group designated a terrorist organization in Russia, and indeed in most of the world, is virtually omnipresent in Syria. They are the second-largest rebel group, they control much of the territory in Idlib, they have fighters in East Ghouta, they are with al-Nusra and the Zinki faction in northern Aleppo, and they were until very recently in Western Ghouta, an area now completely in government hands. Jaysh al-Islam, also a terrorist group from the perspective of the Russian government, continues to fire rockets into residential districts of Damascus from their positions in Duma and Erbin, two of the most important towns in East Ghouta. Although the percentage of East Ghouta district held by rebels has been significantly reduced since the Syrian army’s offensive in the spring of 2016, Jaysh al-Islam remains in control of the western parts of that rural suburb adjacent to the capital.

Therefore, by Russia’s own standards, a true victory against ‘terrorism’ is still a little way off. A near-complete victory against the terrorist group ISIS is perhaps a better way of putting it. But Russian airpower has been crucial in turning the tide of the war in President Assad’s favour, since they first intervened with airstrikes back in the autumn of 2015.

Prior to October 2015, the situation on the ground was drastically different. We saw a weak and disorganized military, retreating on multiple fronts and conceding large swathes of land to ISIS in the east, to Nusra in the north, and to other rebel units in the south. Latakia was in serious danger, Damascus was barely holding on, Aleppo was the rebel stronghold, Hama was about to fall, Daraa was entirely under rebel control, Western Ghouta was a Nusra safehouse, and the collapse of the state seemed imminent. Russia’s entry changed the game. Today, Aleppo has been recaptured by Syrian military forces, Latakia is entirely under government control, much of Hama’s northern countryside has been retaken, Palmyra was liberated from Daesh, Deir Ezzor has been freed, Syrian troops have entered Daraa City, they control a large portion of East Ghouta, 100% of Western Ghouta, and are now preparing to storm Idlib.

The Syrian state has been preserved, the government of Bashar al-Assad stabilised, and the Syrian army discernibly strengthened.

The general international optimism surrounding the Geneva Peace Process has faded away as the negotiations themselves have been stalled. The Syrian government’s delegation, led by Dr Bashar al-Jaafari, walked out of the meeting in frustration. In a televised interview, Mr Jaafari stated that the opposition’s insistence on President Assad’s immediate departure as a precondition was a “non-starting point which could only reach a dead end”. Political analysts have suggested that the government’s decision to withdraw their delegation was an embarrassment to Moscow, who had spent months organizing the event and persuading the government side to attend.

Meanwhile, there are several new reports alleging that US President Donald Trump has abandoned previous US attempts to oust the Syrian leader, deciding instead that he could remain in office until 2021. Whether he expects Bashar Assad to resign then, or whether he would tolerate him running for a new term, remains unconfirmed.

#syria #russia

Stubbornness will only lead to more misery

Since the defeat of ISIS at the hands of the Syrian army in Deir-Ezzor, hopes have been high for the resumption of a genuine political process between the Syrian government and the western-sponsored opposition. A fresh round of Geneva negotiations is already on the agenda. Russia’s efforts, alongside Turkey and Iran, seemed to be heading in the right direction. Bashar al Assad’s meeting in Sochi with his Russian counterpart and ally, Vladimir Putin, was described to us as ‘constructive’ and ‘fruitful’, with the Syrian leader expressing his readiness for engaging in positive dialogue with all parties. Expectations, even from the usually pessimistic press, were surprisingly high.

But this optimism has little chance of living up to expectations. Any prospect for peace is always welcome, but such hopes are invariably dashed by two major obstacles: either unreasonable obstinacy, or persistent delusion.

Repeated demands by the UN-recognized opposition, that President Assad leave power at the start of any transition, or that Iran withdraw all military forces and militias (including Hezbollah) from Syria immediately, are simply unrealistic, and delusional. The armed rebel groups are not in the same position as they were prior to Russia’s intervention. They have less leverage over the Syrian government, which has regained momentum and confidence over the past two years. Russia succeeded in bolstering President Assad’s forces, giving them the upper hand on the battlefield, and allowing them to reclaim much of the territory previously conceded to the rebels, including Aleppo City, a moment in history that was a major turning point in the conflict.

Syrian President Assad’s pledge to ‘retake every inch of Syria’ would also seem unrealistic in the short term; as such an objective could never be achieved without at least another two or three years of all-out war. Whether he truly intends to retake the entire country and genuinely believes the task is possible, or whether he said this for media purposes, is irrelevant. If Syria is to have any chance of peace and national reconciliation, both the government and the moderate opposition groups must accept the realities of the current situation, whilst agreeing to negotiate in good faith and without setting preconditions.

To most objective and logical observers, it appears that a military solution is no longer viable, if it ever was: the rebels have lost some of their most important strongholds, including Aleppo, the entirety of Western Ghouta, a considerable part of Eastern Ghouta, and continue to lose ground in northern Hama. They have also lost all their gains in Latakia province, 95% of which is currently government controlled. And whilst the government’s army is advancing on multiple fronts and launching successful offensives, they are also exhausted, overstretched, suffering from a shortage in manpower, and overly reliant on Russian air support.

Despite efforts to unite the fragmented political opposition and bring the government to the table, many important factions remain excluded from the peace process. The YPG, the single most significant force in the fight against ISIS, has not been invited to Geneva. This preeminent faction of the Syrian Kurds deserves to be represented in any negotiations concerning the fate of their country. For that matter Rifaat al-Assad’s United Nationals Democratic Alliance (UNDA), is also excluded from the peace talks. As are those Syrian Baathists in the opposition, who defected several decades ago. As are most secular factions.

Figures such as Riyad Hijab, former Syrian Prime Minister who defected during the early phase of the conflict, are of no political relevance to current events. Nor is Mohamed Alloush remotely relevant. Mr Alloush, a complete unknown to the Syrian public, made his name in 2016 for attracting controversy at the Geneva peace talks merely because of his family connection to Zahran Alloush, founding-commander of Jaysh al-Islam rebel faction. As for the newly-appointed head of the ‘High Negotiations Committee’ Nasr al-Hariri,  Syrians hadn’t heard of Mr. Hariri until his comments regarding the immediate departure of the Syrian president from power only two days ago. Very few of them would even remember his name if you asked them today. Such individuals are often placed in the limelight and given media attention, without having any real public support. They represent themselves and the delegations they speak for, but they represent nobody in Syria.

The opposition delegation attending the Geneva conference is not as inclusive and representative as Mr. de Mistura believes it to be. Perhaps it is time he reconsidered his approach.


Syria as a Secular Democracy

Secularism is the single most important feature to preserve in a future Syria. Syria has been a secular state since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The secularization process, which began during the French mandate, has served as a crucial guarantee for the country’s religious and ethnic minorities. Currently the bloody civil war is perhaps reaching its concluding chapter. The danger Syrians face at this stage, at a time when the world might otherwise be focused on beginning a period of genuine democratization, is the omnipresent extremism and religious intolerance which continues to hold sway, despite the decisive victories against ISIS on the battlefield.

ISIS may soon cease to exist as an armed force. But the ideology of Daesh, that of hatred and persecution of the infidel, remains deeply entrenched at the core of conservative Islamic communities, particularly in Idlib province, some rural areas surrounding Damascus, and to a lesser extent in the city of Hama.

Prior to the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, Syrians lived together in harmony. Syria set an example for neighbouring Arab states, especially Iraq and Lebanon. Syria was a functioning and economically prosperous state with peace, security and stability. But that sense of security stems from Syria’s internationally commended national unity in the absence of religious tensions.

Secularism is the only guarantee for women’s rights. Most in the liberal west would agree that it is a woman’s choice whether or not to wear the veil. This freedom of choice is removed by the tyranny of extremist theocracies. If we are truly committed to improving Syria as a country, rather than drowning in our obsession with regime change, all aspects of Syrian society must be taken into serious consideration.

A secular and civil state, with secular state institutions, a secular constitution, and secular laws, guarantees the rights of all religious minorities, at a time of unprecedented ambiguity regarding the country’s political future. Alawites, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and the majority of Sunnis, particularly the new generation and the educated classes, grew increasingly suspicious of the western-sponsored non-ISIS opposition, amongst concerns that they were not, in substance, that different from Daesh. A secular Syrian democracy, which maintains the rule of law, and guarantees the rights of all sectors of society, would reassure those currently living in fear and panic.

Even under the current constitution, despite the secular nature of the Baathist state, it is mandatory that the president be Muslim-born. Further, the main source of legislation is the Quran. Such laws clearly contradict the very essence of secular governance.

Syria Can Now Heal

The Syrian conflict has reached a crucial stage. With the imminent destruction of ISIS in the east, and the creation of four major de-escalation zones to the west, the stage is set for renewed attempts to bring the fratricidal war to an end.

To the surprise of most observers, the de-escalation zones established by the United States and Russia have been respected by the warring parties. Statistics show a highly significant reduction in the number of casualties and the general level of violence. There have been a number of reconciliations between the Syrian government and factions of the moderate opposition over the past two years, particularly in the rural suburbs of Damascus, as was the case in Qudsayah and al-Hameh. Amnesty has been granted to insurgents and army-defectors, something we never saw during the initial phase of the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his objectives in Syria in an interview with Charlie Rose in late September 2015, emphasising three major points:

  1. The importance of the fight against terrorism to Russia’s national security
  2. The importance of preserving Syrian statehood
  3. “…creating the necessary conditions for the political process” to resume

Now that the first two objectives have been satisfied, there is no reason to delay the third. Unlike previous attempts, the new round of peace talks must include the entire spectrum of the opposition and the Syrian government. All factions of the Syrian people must be represented. Picking and choosing some opposition groups to speak on behalf of the others is unacceptable. Further, those who take the lead at the negotiating table should represent Syrians on the ground.  Certain figures in the opposition have no real political relevance and are unknown to Syrians, yet they are constantly put in the forefront when they head the mainstream opposition delegations.

There is a serious concern amongst religious minorities that an extremist Islamist system is the only alternative to the current government, and this fear has often been ignored. Western governments that have enthusiastically supported certain opposition groups must recognize and understand this fear. Controversial entities such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam are often legitimized as part of the acceptable opposition despite their explicit hatred of “the infidel” and allegations of their involvement in mass killings of civilians alongside the Nusra Front. Promoting a secular and democratic Syria is hardly compatible with the vision of Islamist hardliners. Secularism is the only guarantee for the safety of religious minorities in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

The Geneva peace process is to be seen in tandem, and not in conflict, with Astana. One should complement the other. The Astana agreements have materialised, providing a solid basis for the Geneva talks to generate positive results and build on the successes of Astana.

Finally, both sides should act in good faith. The only priority must be the interests of the Syrian people. For the talks to succeed, both sides must be prepared for compromise and willing to make reasonable concessions. Imposing preconditions at this stage is counterproductive. It has become clear that there cannot be a viable military solution to the Syrian conflict, and no side can achieve a decisive military victory over the other.