By Manish Rai
It is hard to imagine that representatives of the 30 countries that assembled in Geneva actually believed that they could find a political solution to the ongoing three year old Syrian civil war. Given the differing strategic interests in Syria of the powers within and outside the region, reaching a consensus to end the crisis at this juncture is beyond the realm of possibility. After the first round of Geneva II negotiations between the warring sides mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi adjourned some ten days ago without concrete results achieved, the second round resumed but saw little rift healed so far. The Syrian opposition coalition has no unity. A big part of its components withdrew from the coalition protesting the Geneva talks and the rest does not fully represent the Syrian people. And most armed rebel groups now are Islamist in character. They are fighting for Sharia law, not democracy, the objective of the peace process sponsored by the US and Britain. What then can be achieved by these talks? No-one really expects a peace deal in Switzerland through these talks. But then a valid question arises that why then these talks were organized at first place. Talks might have been conveyed because some optimists hope that a durable ceasefire might eventually emerge. There has never been a prospect of that in almost three years of Syria’s civil war.
The two sides did not budge from their main positions, with the government side insists on stopping violence and terrorism as top priority, while the opposition focusing on the establishment of a transitional governing body. The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said the issue of Bashar Al Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. He said that “Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” while talking to a press reporter. Moreover both the sides accuse each other of being responsible for escalating violence in Syria and disruption of aid for civilians. It was clearly visible in case Homs for which a deal was clinched last week for a three-day truce in rebel-held parts of Homs to secure the evacuation of hundreds of trapped civilians and the entry of humanitarian aid convoys. That effort was disrupted as lorries carrying supplies into Homs came under heavy fire. Both sides traded accusations over who was responsible. So it is clear that there is no common objective between the two sides to achieve. Even the role of big two players United States and Russia is also not proving to be very constructive. President Obama may strongly embrace the agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons or seek a political solution by holding the Geneva II conference. Unfortunately and predictably, the chemical deal worked only to strengthen Assad as it prevented an American attack and gave him more time to consolidate his gains.
Obama, who is determined not to engage America in another conflict in the Middle East, has left Syria to the whims of Russia’s President Putin, who was more than eager to fill in the gap and usurp the political agenda to ensure Russia’s long-term interests in Syria. There are many factors that complicate the prospect of any political solution, which seem to have escaped the Obama administration or were treated with ambivalence. First, in addition to Russia and Iran, many of the players, including the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and scores of jihadist groups in and outside the region, have different political agendas and will do everything in their power to thwart any solution that does not serve their interests. Second, the civil war has now also evolved into a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Iraq and now Syria are seen as the battlegrounds of a long-simmering conflict between them and it is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. Third, the convenient “political cooperation” between the US and Russia does not obscure the fact that they have fundamental disagreements not only about Assad’s fate but also the kind of political order that will follow. Fourth, the war has provided a historic opportunity for scores of Muslim extremists, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups. They are determined to exploit the chaos in Syria regardless of the price they pay and how high the Syrian death toll rises.
Speculation abounds as to how to end this tragedy when no power wants to end it only for the sake of the Syrian people. Geneva II could not even deliver an enforceable agreement to provide food and medicine to children, many who are sick and starving to death. Instead, the leaders in attendance found comfort in the fact that the rebels and Assad’s representatives sat face-to-face and talked. Given this gloomy reality, one wonders from where a political solution can come to end Syria’s unfolding human tragedy. The fact that scores of jihadists have converged on the country and are committed to fight against any agreement and each other to promote their political agenda further prolongs the war as the fighting no longer has a single purpose. This is what often happens in a civil war when the combatants are engaged in a protracted fight and neither side can win without gaining a decisive advantage. This situation is further complicated when outside powers continue to support different sides, but not enough to tilt the balance decisively one way or the other. Under these circumstances, the civil war in Syria could last 10 to 15 years or more. The civil war in Lebanon that lasted from 1975 to 1990 is a case in point other examples of long and debilitating civil wars include Afghanistan and Sudan. If this scenario unfolds, Syria as a state will disintegrate, hundreds of thousands more Syrians will die, starvation and diseases will run rampant, and much of the country will lie in ruin. No one can tell how this catastrophe will impact other states in the region, but one thing is certain not a single country will be spared and the potential for regional conflagration will be omnipresent.