The US-Russian agreement to seek a ceasefire is a welcome development, but an understanding between these major powers alone is likely to be self-defeating, writes Amin Saikal.
Finally, there is a tiny slice of good news about Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed to seek a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” within a week.
Should it materialise, it could help to end the bloodletting, the human tragedies and the physical destruction that have come to characterise Syria.
However, given the complexity of the situation on the ground, we cannot be too optimistic at this stage about the chances of success.
The problem with the Syrian crisis is that too many competing internal and external actors have their fingers in the country’s conflicted pie. Syria is in the grip of massive power and territorial fragmentation and outside power rivalries.
While the dictatorial government of Bashar al-Assad is confronted by an array of moderate and extremist opposition forces, neither side in the conflict is fighting on its own.
The Assad regime is supported by the Iranian Islamic Government and its protégé Lebanese force, Hezbollah, and its allied Iraqi government, as well as by Russia, whose direct military intervention has tipped the balance in favour of the regime in the past few weeks.
The opposition forces, with the exception of the self-declared Islamic State (IS), are backed by external opponents of the Assad regime, most importantly Saudi Arabia, and its Arab partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States and its Western allies, and Turkey at different levels for different purposes.
The GCC and the West do not want the apparent Moscow-Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis to succeed. The axis, on the other hand, is determined to make sure that Assad’s minority Alawite sectarian government survives as a key actor against all the opposition forces that claim representation on behalf of the Sunni majority population of Syria in one form or another.
Meanwhile, Turkey has its own agenda. It is vehemently opposed to any development in Syria that could help the country’s Kurdish minority to become a sanctuary for the Turkish Kurdish secessionist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Yet, all these actors have become active in Syria in the name of confronting IS as the most dreadful and despicable of all indigenous actors. The result has been physical destruction of Syria, with devastating human tragedies for the Syrian people, generating a massive outflow of refugees to neighbouring countries – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in particular – as well as Europe.
Amid all this, none of the combating forces are really winning. If the Assad government and its backers think that they are gaining the upper hand, that would be at the cost of inheriting not only a totally ruined country, but also a Syria empty of half of its population – all also at a very high price for themselves.
Russia may rejoice over having contributed to the creation of an unprecedented refugee problem for Europe as a payback for the American and European sanctions against Russia over the country’s support of separatists in Ukraine, but what a way to retaliate.
The Syrian crisis is so complex now that it can only be resolved if there is a consensus at three levels:
- The national level between various Syrian warring parties
- The regional level between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey
- The international level between the United States and Russia
The American-Russian agreement to seek a ceasefire is a welcome development, but an understanding between ‘major powers’ alone is likely to be self-defeating.
For any ceasefire to hold and lead to a viable settlement, it will need to be based on an interlocking national, regional and international consensus amongst the main players.
At this stage, such a consensus does not exist.