By Talmiz Ahmad
The 10-year commemoration of Syria’s bloody civil conflict in March has evoked expressions of anguish and some new diplomatic initiatives.
Nearly half-a-million people have been killed and several million more displaced since the conflict started on March 15, 2011.
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described the Syrian situation as a “living nightmare” and recalled the “atrocities” and “greatest crimes” that have been inflicted on its people. He noted that 60 percent of the population could suffer hunger this year.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, mourned the “unimaginable violence and indignities” that the Syrian people have endured over the last decade, and applauded their “resilience.”
Widespread fatigue with the Syrian imbroglio was reflected at the online donors’ conference that the UN organized in Brussels on March 29. Mark Lowcock, head of UN humanitarian assistance and emergency relief, spoke of a decade of “death, destruction, displacement, disease, dread and despair” in Syria. But this exuberance of verbosity raised only SR24 billion ($6.4 billion) for the year against the target of $10 billion. Other than Germany, every other country reduced its commitment as compared to the previous year.
In an ironic move on March 18, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Idlib, Al-Bab and Azaz in the northern opposition-controlled areas of Syria to mark the 10th anniversary of their “revolution.” They replayed their decade-old slogans of freedom, justice and dignity, and affirmed their pledge to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad. They chose to forget that their cause has failed and Assad now controls 60 percent of the country.
There are however some signs of fresh thinking on Syria. At the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo on March 3, the Egyptian minister, Sameh Shoukry, called for Syria’s return to the Arab League from which it was ousted a decade ago. He stressed that this would need to be part of a holistic “political solution” that would also include the Syrian opposition. Some Egyptian commentators believe that Syria’s return to the league would facilitate the national peace process while reducing the influence of non-Arab states in the country.
In this background, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, mounted a major diplomatic foray in the Gulf when he visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar on March 8-12. Syria was the main subject of discussion, signaling a new Arab interest in addressing Syria-related matters to facilitate the country’s return to the Arab fold.
Lavrov obtained a fairly clear understanding of present thinking on Syria in the region. The UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, described Syria’s return to the Arab ranks as in the interest “of Syria and the region.” He also criticized US sanctions on Syria under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.
An important development during the Lavrov tour was the meeting in Doha on March 11 of the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Qatar. While Qatar opposed Syria’s early return to the Arab League, the three ministers announced their new “trilateral consultation process” to achieve a “lasting political solution” in Syria. In their joint statement, they affirmed their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and an inclusive political settlement, and their backing for the efforts of the constitutional committee and the early return of displaced persons to their homes.
This initiative suggests that the Astana peace process has reached the end of its useful life and the situation now needs a fresh approach with a new partner. Qatar’s inclusion in the tripartite process could perhaps help to moderate Turkey’s territorial and political ambitions in Syria. This will be a formidable challenge. In a Bloomberg article on March 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought “Western support” for Istanbul's agenda in Syria, which means backing for Turkey’s “safe-zone” in the north, its confrontation with the Kurds, and its military presence in northern Syria.
This approach seems to be another instance of Erdogan’s duplicity — seeking Western backing for an agenda that he knows is robustly opposed by his Astana partners, Russia and Iran. In any case, it is unlikely to succeed as Western powers have no wish either to abandon the Kurds or to accommodate Erdogan’s affiliation with extremist elements in Idlib.
At the same time, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are happy to support a Kurdish-Assad engagement and mobilize themselves for the much-delayed assault on extremist elements holed up in Idlib under Turkish protection.
After 10 years of a lethal conflict, the situation in Syria remains as intractable and as murky as ever, with domestic contending parties continuing on the path of confrontation along with the backing of external powers. With large sections of the international community losing interest in Syria, there is every likelihood that the conditions in Syria will continue for many more years unless Arab leaders can come up with a new peace initiative.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India.