SYRIA: A NEVER ENDING WAR WITHOUT SOLUTIONS
the midst of a war that has been ongoing for over four years,
where no prisoners are taken and where ruthlessness, shown by both
parties involved, does not leave any room for a negotiated
solution (despite the virtual attempts by Geneva), it is difficult
to foresee if and when the regime of Bashar al Assad will
collapse. Presently the loyalist troops, supported by civil
paramilitary formation such as the loathed Shabiha, to whom we
should add the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shiite volunteers and some
units of Iranian Pasderan, are holding a defensive stance. Over
two thirds of the country are in the hands of the rebels. It is a
fact, however, that the survival of the Syrian regime depends on
several factors, some internal and some external, which make it
very hard to predict the coming events.
The balance of power
The balance of power on the ground is the following: Assad, despite the heavy losses (about 80.000 men) and the defections (roughly 70.000 men), still has 150 to 200 thousand men on the ground (this includes the military, the paramilitary and the security services). More importantly, Assad has vast financial capabilities, which allows him to enroll more soldiers and to buy himself some useful allies. Nevertheless, the mobilization of further human resources is nearly impossible. Assad himself said so during a public speech (that is why it is vital to maintain control of the country's more important areas). A further element that must be accounted for is the “morale” factor which could become crucial after the latest defeats.
Fighting alongside the regular army and the paramilitary we find a varied lot of Shiites volunteers which includes Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Iranians. Altogether they should total no more than 15.000 men. These volunteers have recently arrived to Syria, where they disembarked in Latakia or landed in Damascus, and are being assisted, formed and trained by the Iranians. Lastly, there are the Lebanese Hezbollah, who presently total roughly 5.000 men, but who should increase in numbers according to their leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The brutality of the Islamic state reinforce the drive of the troops loyal to Assad. These are not just Alawites, but also minorities like Shiites, Yazidis, Christians and the 20.000 Druzes of the Golan Heights (the reason for the attack against Israeli ambulances that were carrying wounded rebels to their hospitals on June 22).
On the other front, the armed opposition is divided and multi-colored. The al Nusra front of Abu Mohammed Golani (3 to 4 thousand men, about a third of which are foreigners) competes against the ISIS (due to a rift that occurred in 2013, when al Nusra decided to remain an affiliate of Al Qaeda). Then there are various other groups with varying degrees of Islamic radicalism (in Idlib, together with Golani, there were six more terrorist factions fighting on the ground, including Ahrar ash Sham). We have the Free Syrian Army which is financed by the USA, and there is a rebel coalition on the southern front (the “Southern Army of Conquest”, which branches out into the area of Hermon and which counts on a total of about 35 thousand men). This last coalition is sponsored by Jordan (with weapons, salaries, logistic assistance, operative coordination though a Command Center north of Amman headed by the USA, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar).
Again, we find a long list of names, some of which are already known, like the above-mentioned Free Syrian Army, while others are not (Sayf al Sham, Jesus Christ Brigade, Ajnad al Sham aka “The Soldiers of Syria”). It is a varied world where there exists no real military coordination. When such coordination is provided, the results on the ground immediately reflect the effort. Many of the groups operate independently, while some are under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. It is not easy to quantify the number of soldiers that fight for each of these factions and there are often clashes between the 'secular' rebels and the Salafite ones. In addition, there are Kurdish Syrian militias that neither fight against Assad, nor support him, who's goal is the fight for their territorial independence which is threatened by the ISIS.
Yet much of that which happens in Syria does not depend directly on the evaluation of the forces on the ground, but by the decisions of other regional or international actors in the theater.
The wider picture
Firstly, there is Iran. Teheran fights alongside Assad because of the ongoing struggle in the Muslim world which pits Sunnis against Shiites (who are, in this case, represented by the minority Alawite sect which governs in Damascus). Iran cannot afford to lose this confrontation, even though it is a proxy war. Damascus and Teheran have signed a mutual defense agreement in 2006 which binds one country with the other. It is an agreement which could legitimize in the future a direct involvement of the Iranian regular troops in the Syrian conflict. It is a last resort which cannot be ruled out if the conflict were to turn really nasty for Assad.
The interests of Iran go well beyond the Syrian events and into the Lebanese region. The Shiite Hezbollahs are fighting alongside Assad with Iranian support. This support is materially ensured by the territorial contiguity between Iran and Lebanon, through Syria, where weapons and aid can transit. If Syria collapses, Teheran would lose a valuable military ally, especially in the struggle against Israel and against the Sunni monarchies.
On a separate front we find the Sunni coalition formed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar which, for substantially religious reasons, want to topple Assad's regime. Turkey, for one, has an additional problem: they want to prevent the Syrian Kurds, who are associated with the Turkish PKK, from gaining control over a territory where they hope to establish in the future their own nation, just like the Iraqi Kurds have attempted to do for the past decade. The Sunni front has recently reached an agreement to support with weapons and financing the armed oppositions that fight against Damascus. This has provided certain rebel factions, including the more radical ones, to have a source of provisions and support that increases their military capabilities.
In order to support the attempts to topple Assad, rumors of a possible coup against the regime are spreading through Turkey. These rumors were fueled by the recent arrest of the head of intelligence, Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus, for alleged contacts with the opposition and by the death, a month earlier, of the head of the Political Security Directorate, Rustum Ghazaleh, who was caught in a feud with the head of Military Intelligence, General Rafiq Shehadeh, who was later sacked.
The recent terrorist attacks on Turkish ground have convinced the President Recep Erdogan to shift from a passive position to a direct military involvement in the events in Syria. Turkey has thus finally allowed the USA to use the air base of Incirlik (until today their jets were based in Bahrain) and has begun bombings of the ISIS and PKK in Syria. The most notable result of this is that, in the near future, the ISIS will be left isolated from their only source of men and weapons, and this will produce a sensible weakening of the military capabilities of al Baghdadi's militias.
Where this military stalemate will lead is still uncertain. Will Assad resist? And will the ISIS manage to maintain its military prowess in the future? Seen the stances of the various international parties involved and the change in Turkey's political line, we must now ask ourselves if there is the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict.
A negotiated solution?
Russia has been very active of late on this front. Seen their need to uphold the Syrian regime, Russia is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian problem. There was a first meeting, the so-called “Geneva I”, then a second one in June 2012, the “Geneva II”, which produced a protocol undersigned by the parts. Now there is talk of an upcoming “Geneva III”.
Recently, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov organized two advisory inter-Syrian meetings in Moscow. The meetings were attended by a delegation from the government, members of the opposition, and representatives of the civil society. The meetings were aimed at easing dialog between the parts and creating a transitional government. The results, however, were scarce and the UN was called in. The envoy of the Secretary General, Staffan de Mistura, has been working for weeks on a series of meetings in Geneva and Damascus in order to define a road-map, the final goal of which is the creation of a transitional government (with full legislative, executive and judicial powers). In practice, they seek a political solution to the problem with the estrangement of Bashar al Assad (there is already talk about his being exiled in Teheran or Moscow). In a situation such as the Syrian one, finding a negotiated solution seems difficult, if not impossible.
The United States were initially favorable to the ousting of Assad. Now their position has changed because they are aware that, when Assad falls, there is a reasonable risk that Syria will fall prey to the same Islamic factions that fight against him today. The fall of Assad would then become a victory for the ISIS, which is Washington's number one enemy. The United States would now rather see Assad leaving power through negotiations than see him booted out. It is, however, a mighty task, because, in the event of Assad's 'soft' removal, it is still unclear which of the factions that fight against him could emerge as a credible political alternative, notwithstanding their military merits.
There is therefore a convergence of interests between the United States and Russia. On the one side Moscow supports Assad, but would also agree to his removal through negotiations. This should, of course, be a transition that would keep Russia's direct strategic interests intact, namely the military naval base in Latakia and the possibility that the new Syrian government be close to Russia.
Lately, the two main Syrian opposition groups in exile, the “National Syrian Coalition” and the “National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change” met in Brussels and decided to focus their debate around an issue that sees every party agreeable: Bashar al Assad must go. The two opposition groups were until now on opposite fronts and this is a small step towards convergence that could ease negotiations.
The problem is that neither of the two opposition groups has any power over the armed factions that are currently fighting against the regime. Their decisions could well remain in the 'virtual' grounds of a diplomatic initiative. Also, there is the possibility that the solution for Syria will include the 'partitioning' of Syria into a federal state. It has been said that too much blood has been shed to envisage a peaceful cohabitation of the various communities.
disaster with no end
The civil war in Syria has caused over 220.000 dead since March 2011. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there are an additional, not documented, 90.000 dead, seen that both sides tend to downplay their losses. There are also 20.000 detainees (out of the 200.000 arrests carried out by the regime) whom have literally vanished (not to mention the executed war prisoners). A total carnage which does not stop with the Syrians; there are an esteemed 4.000 casualties among foreigners on the loyalist side and another 30.000 on the side of the rebels.
Amid this human catastrophe, we must not forget the 3,8 million Syrians that have fled abroad and the 5 million who have become refugees in their own country in order to escape from the combat zones. The remainder of the population is in dire need for humanitarian assistance.
Tomorrow's Syria will not reflect that of the past, it will be a new territorial, political and military entity. If a new, federal system will be applied, the entire coastal area, which is mainly inhabited by Alawites (who account for 15-20% of the population) will find it hard to coexist with the country's Sunni majority. Too much blood has been shed. The same is true with the other minorities: the Druze who inhabit the Golan Heights and the Syrian Kurds who, seen their military merits in the fight, will lay claims over their territory bordering Turkey.
Frankly speaking, the full picture leaves us with no easy solution in sight.