In the Syrian arena

In the Syrian arena

The US-Russia agreement is an important breakthrough

The US-Russia agreement is an important breakthrough

The United States’ and Russia’s announcement to jointly call an international conference on Syria is the latest effort to resolve the increasingly violent civil war beyond the paralysis which besets the UN Security Council. The earlier failed initiatives,including Kofi Annan’s Geneva plan,have not been able to arrest the mounting tally of 70,000 dead and over two million refugees.

Syria has become the septic focus of the movement for reform and revolution in the Arab world.

We see multiple proxy wars unfolding between three sets of actors,which will impact the future of the region: first,those ranged on either side of the raging sectarianism,like Saudi Arabia,Qatar,Turkey and Iran; second,those on opposing sides of the on-going confrontation with Iran,like the US,Israel and Europe; and third,those countries still wanting to impose their conception of democracy on the Arab world,both Western and regional. The alleged use of chemical weapons,possibly by both sides,and Israel’s military forays chasing Syrian weapons transfers,have introduced two more dangerous dimensions to this conflict.


As we approach the endgame in Damascus,accounting for 25 per cent of the population,the US-Russian initiative could not have come at a better time. It closely follows similar extra-UN proposals which came out of the BRICS summit in March 2013 and a non-aligned initiative discussed by Iran and India this week. Both initiatives were at the behest of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s appeal to all BRICS members as well as to Iran as the NAM chair.

With the outer suburbs of Damascus under continuous rebel attack,and its closely guarded security perimeter collapsing,there is no respite for the majority of non-combatant civilians tired of instability,social disruption and economic deprivation. The only glimmer of hope for the regime could have been the growing negative sentiment amongst Syrians towards the opposition that,for the most part,is not home-grown and derives its sustenance from abroad. Yet,we are well past that point: it is now a life-and-death struggle for Assad and his Alawites. The course of the spreading civil war has now made it inevitable that,through either desertions or failing fire-power,those backing Assad will find it increasingly difficult to stem the tide of a proliferating extremist opposition armed with sophisticated weaponry.

The prospect of an early collapse of the regime gives rise to at least three dangerous scenarios,any of which could further exacerbate the internecine violence and its spread to Lebanon and eventually Jordan,Turkey and Israel. First,despite the illusion of unity within the reconstituted opposition,there is no plan for fostering an orderly transition in Syria. Reminiscent of the fall of Saddam Hussein,there are loud voices seeking the dismantling of the country’s national institutions and of the Ba’ath party. This would be a recipe for disaster,since the state is still the largest employer in Syria. Second,the flow of weapons even to moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army opens the possibility of their transfer to extremist groups within the opposition and increases insecurity among minority groups like the Shia,the Alawites,the Druze and the Christians,the mainstay of the Assad regime. A sectarian bloodbath,which has already drawn in elements in Lebanon like Hezbollah and Damascus-based Palestinian groups,could be the next phase of this civil war,harking back to the decade-long war in Lebanon. As it is,the people of Syria are the ones who are suffering,with the economy on the ropes,food scarcity,rising prices,regular power and internet outages and water shortages. There is no gainsaying that even under the best of circumstances it will take a long while before the economic situation can be stabilised.

A negotiated resolution that the US-Russian initiative proposes could halt the violence,ensure humanitarian relief and bring in a phased institutional transition. In calling for both the regime and the opposition to come to the table,the proposal sets no pre-conditions,while imposing reciprocal obligations on both Russia and the US to deliver the two protagonists. Even more,while it gives primacy to a Syrian-led,and hopefully inclusive,process it also recognises that Assad,unlike Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak,still holds three major institutions: the Ba’ath party,whose membership of three million cuts across the country,the trade guilds,with a membership of 2.5 million,and the army,with about 450,000. Despite some defections,none of the three has splintered yet. With the support of almost six million of a population of 22 million,the regime still holds the high cards.

The agreement between the US and Russia to close ranks and to seek to convince the two sides to come for negotiations is an important breakthrough. Weaving it with the BRICS and NAM proposals will imbue the effort with the resources and experience of countries like China,India,South Africa,Brazil and those from the Arab and Muslim worlds. It would represent,far better than the UNSC,the will of the international community in favour of an early peace in Syria.

The writer is a former ambassador to Syria