By: Nikolaos van Dam
Dr. Nikolaos van Dam is a former ambassador of the Netherlands to various Middle Eastern countries. He served as Dutch Special Envoy for Syria and is the author of Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria
The war in Syria can be expected to continue just as long as only one of the parties has gained full control over all its territories, and it is very likely that this will be the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. How long the war will still last, depends to a great extent on the support foreign countries, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others, are prepared to give to the Syrian military opposition forces. And there is a decline in their interest to keep doing so, because even though they still pay some lip service to their original demand that there should not be any role for President Bashar al-Asad in Syria’s future, they in practice have started to accept the reality that al-Asad will remain in power for an indefinite period, and that he is bound to be part of a political solution. Russia and Iran will keep supporting the Syrian regime, if only because they want to keep their strategic ally in power.
Like in the past, the Syrian regime can be expected to apply a kind of ‘war economy’ in its military operations in the sense that it will not take unnecessary risks that might jeopardize its military position. The regime is not in a great hurry, and prepares to attack it enemies preferably in periods and parts of the country which it considers to be the more favorable. Like in the past, it will make temporary alliances with whatever parties that might serve its aims, even with political adversaries, like for instance the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the north.
The north-western province of Idlib can be expected to be one of the next areas of intensified warfare, because it harbors a concentration of radical armed opposition groups, many of which have been deported to Idlib after their military defeat elsewhere in the country. As the radical military groups in Idlib (some of which are related to al-Qa’ida) are not only considered as a threat by the Syrian regime, but also by other parties, like Turkey and the United States, the Damascus regime probably calculates that these other countries may at some stage be prepared to share some of the burden in eliminating the most radical Syrian opposition forces present there. The aim of the Syrian regime has not been to deport defeated Syrian opposition militias and their families to Idlib, in order to negotiate a political compromise with them later on, but rather to fully eliminate them once the time is considered to be militarily ripe for the regime.
There are still Syrian areas under control of the Americans, Turks and others. Russia, Iran, Hizballah and the Syrian regime want to avoid direct military confrontations with them, and would prefer a ‘political solution’ leading to the departure of all those foreign forces from Syrian territory which have not been invited by the Syrian government. The Americans and Israelis, on the other hand, want the Iranian military out of Syria in the interest of Israel’s security. As the Iranians are militarily quite embedded in Syria, this is easier said than done, but perhaps the summit meeting in Helsinki (16 July 2018) between the US and Russian presidents, Trump and Putin, may contribute to a solution. President Trump has earlier declared that he wanted his military troops to leave Syria soon, but his military advisors have a different view. Continuation of the al-Asad regime would be in the interest of Israel, taking as a point of departure that the Syrian-Israeli front on the Golan has been quiet since the Disengagement Agreement of 1974.
In case there are to be any further negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, these will probably deal mainly with military issues. Armistices and cease-fires or ‘de-escalation of violence’ are for the Syrian regime mainly a means to improve its military position, from which it can later on continue its war against all opposition groups with the aim of retaking the whole country. Such negotiations (like those in Sochi) are, from the point of view of the regime, not intended as a stage on the way to a political compromise with the opposition.
The intra-Syria talks that have taken place after the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, have not produced any positive results leading to a political solution. In fact, it should have been clear from the earlier stages of the conflict that negotiations between the regime and the opposition groups were bound to fail as long as some unrealistic points of departure were maintained.
A key element in negotiations is, of course, that the parties involved are really prepared to reach a compromise. In reality, however, the main parties wanted to eliminate one another, if not completely, then at least to a great extent. They, therefore, had completely different views of what a compromise would have to look like.
The Geneva Communiqué (30 June 2012), which is supposed to be one of the cornerstones for the intra-Syrian negotiations, envisages the following: The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.
The main opposition groups have insisted time and again that it is unacceptable for them to have to share power with President Bashar al-Asad and his main supporters. Therefore, a compromise in which the Syrian regime would keep greater part of its powers seemed to be unacceptable to them.
For the opposition, which accepts the Geneva Communiqué (2012), the compromise was that they accept members of the regime in a transitional governing body. Such a transitional governing body should in their view, however, exclude the hardcore people of the Syrian regime who have blood on their hands, including the president. It is not surprising that such an option has been fully rejected by the regime which is in power in Damascus.
For the regime, the compromise was to include some members of the opposition in a ‘government of national unity’, without giving them any powers that could threaten its position.
As long as President Bashar al-Asad is in power, he is the main decision maker from the regime’s side when it comes to negotiations. The opposition keeps saying, however, that their aim is to topple President al-Asad and his regime, and that they should be brought before justice. This explicit demand has made real negotiations with the al-Asad regime impossible.
Nevertheless, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, continues his relentless efforts in helping to achieve a political solution, for instance by engaging the opposing parties in discussions on specific baskets, like ‘governance, a new constitution, elections, counter terrorism, security governance and confidence building measures.’ De Mistura’s predecessors Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi ended their efforts without success, experiencing their task as a ‘mission impossible’.
The explicit demand of the opposition that President al-Asad has to disappear and should not play any role at all in Syria’s political future, is a demand that falls outside the scope of the Geneva Communique, because nothing is being said in it about the role of the Syrian president. This means that the opposition keeps demanding as a point of departure much more than what has been agreed upon in the Geneva Communique. As a result, real negotiations are by definition aborted, certainly as long as the regime is in power and has the military upper hand, let alone when it is winning the war.
Therefore, it would have been better to have negotiations on the strict basis of the Geneva Communique as it is, which in itself was already difficult enough to reach agreement upon. At a later stage additional demands might be raised, but not before the negotiations themselves have really started.
One of the elements which have also contributed to blocking the possibilities for meaningful intra-Syrian negotiations was and is that greater part of the so-called international community has made additional demands similar to those of the Syrian opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared directly after the adoption of the Geneva Communique in June 2012 that there could not be any role for Bashar al-Asad in the future of Syria, a point which has been repeated afterwards time and again by many Western and Arab political leaders. These demands by the numerous countries who fully supported the demands of the Syrian opposition in this respect, in fact made it impossible for the Syrian opposition parties themselves to demand anything less than that which their international supporters were already asking (if they had ever considered such an option). Thereby, the involved Western and Arab countries in practice helped block any serious negotiations from the very beginning.
According to my knowledge none of these states has encouraged the opposition groups to accept to start negotiations by skipping the abortive demand that the Syrian president and the hard core of his regime had to leave.
Most Western and Arab countries supporting the opposition claimed that they wanted a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which was true in principle. But they only wanted a political solution as long as this would imply regime change. And it could have been predicted that the regime was not prepared to cooperate in its own downfall, let alone its own prosecution or death sentence.
The Western countries supporting the Syrian opposition supported the idea of justice and accountability and were generally not prepared to reign themselves in on this point, if only because the general public in the democracies in the countries involved, generally supported the idea that the dictatorial regime of al-Asad had to disappear, particularly after all the war crimes and other crimes that had reportedly been committed. One might conclude in this context that the democratic systems – irrespective of all the positive things of democracy – in this respect blocked a political solution, because the politicians involved could not bring themselves to supporting a lesser aim – as described in the Geneva Communique – because that would not fulfill their ideas about moral principles and justice, even if this would mean a continuation of the war with, by now, over half a million deadly victims.
Realpolitik was rejected by the opposition and their supporters in favor of a just solution that was unachievable, and priority was given to well-intended political declarations over the prospects of achieving real results. Some political leaders may even have considered their political declarations as successes in themselves. Most Western policies were no more than declaratory, and generally did not provide any tangible positive results that could lead to a political solution for the opposition on the ground. The good intentions that were widely expressed were generally not followed up by decisive concrete actions, because the Western countries had, to a great extent, tied their hands because of domestic and international politics. As a result, there was a disconnect between political aims and achieving these political aims.
What originally could be described as a Syrian civil war, gradually also developed in a war-by-proxy. As a result, a solution had to be found not only between the Syrian parties themselves, but also between the countries that supported the various warring parties.
The general fixation on the departure of President Bashar al-Asad during the conflict, created an obstacle which prevented any serious negotiations.
The opposition and the involved governments that supported them should have been pressed to follow a line which coincided more with realpolitik than with wishful thinking, but hardly any party was prepared to fulfill this seemingly unpopular task, if only for domestic political reasons.
Refusing to communicate with the opposing party in Damascus implied a guarantee for failure, although it should be added that communicating with the Syrian regime in itself did not imply any guarantee for success.
It should go without saying that those who confronted the Syrian regime with a limited will and limited means should also have set limited goals if they were to accomplish even a limited amount of what they wanted to achieve.
By continuing to maintain so-called ethically and politically correct points of view concerning justice, without, however, providing the necessary means to help realize their just aims, various Western and Arab politicians indirectly have helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.
The Syrian regime wanted to stay in power at all costs, whereas the opposition wanted to topple the regime with the help of foreign military and political support, and kept insisting that this was its aim, even after it was on the verge of losing the war. The opposing political positions remained too far apart for any real negotiations to be able to be successful. Apparently, there was not any mediating party that was able to induce either side to moderate its position so as to be able to reach a compromise. Both sides considered it to be a struggle for life or death with hardly any room for compromise. With the increase of the numbers of deadly victims, refugees and destruction, the room for compromise – if there had ever been any room for compromise in the first place – ceased to exist.