Damascus now plays bit-part role in Syria conflict

Some day in future, major elements involved in Syria conflict will be forced to sit around a table to hammer out a peace deal.

2015/10/23 Issue: 28 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Russia’s entry to the crowded field of mercenaries and international powers fighting in Syria has been criticised by many and hailed by others.

Among the foreign elements bent on blowing Syria to pieces are Iran, Hezbollah, the Abu Fadal Al-Abbas brigade, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the troupe of Arab and international men fighting against the Assad regime.

But Russia’s entry to the theatre dwarfs all others both in terms of symbolism and firepower. A permanent member of the UN Security Council and international power taking a stand on Syria may turn out to be either extremely foolhardy or a shrewd move.

Moscow says it entered the war to fight ISIS but the reality has proved very different with Russian air strikes chiefly attacking rebel positions north of Hama and in Idlib province in the north-west — territory controlled by the arch-enemies of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus. And how Assad needs this.

Though revolutionaries and Syrian opposition groups must be at a loss to understand why the world continues to stand by as their once-peaceful uprising has been so completely hijacked, the intervention of Russia into the Syria war will help bring about a lasting negotiated settlement in the future.

The reason for this is that it further sidelines and lessens the role of the one element — the Syrian regime — that refuses to bend in any meaningful way.

There’s a long line of proof that depicts the Syrian government’s unwillingness to negotiate or participate to any serious degree in good faith. In late 2011, Damascus, with great trepidation and disdain, agreed to allow Arab League observers into the country to monitor events on the ground, including the removal of government troops from civilian areas.

Within a month, however, the observer team fled the country because “a harsh new government crackdown made it too dangerous to proceed”, said the Arab League. Then came the United Nations’ attempts to halt the violence, drafting the estimable Kofi Annan into the role of negotiator. Similar results emerged. Then on to Geneva I and II as thousands were slaughtered and millions forced from their homes. The Assad regime continued to act without any degree of seriousness.

In more than four years of war, the Damascus regime has not escaped unscathed. Early on, it depended on lines of credit from Iran to maintain a failing economy and manpower from Hezbollah to shore up defections and deserting. But with thousands of young Syrian men now fleeing the almost certain death or injury of military conscription and the war dragging on, the entry of outside powers has proved a saving grace for Assad.

However, this comes at a cost. With outsiders, including Shia Iran, taking on increasingly important roles in the war, Damascus’ grip on its own country is fading fast. Iranian generals belonging to the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps essentially run operations around Aleppo while Hezbollah’s role in securing the Syrian- Lebanese border has been crucial to cutting the link between northern Lebanon and rebels in the city of Homs.

What is more, both Iran and Hezbollah have lost key military men in Syria recently and Syria is proving to be a graveyard for some of the most ruthless murderers in the region.

With Assad ceding more and more control to outsiders, it is increasingly becoming a bit-part player in what is now a de facto international conflict. Some day in the future the major elements involved in the Syria conflict will be forced to sit around a table to hammer out a peace deal. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Western states will be there, as well as representatives of the Assad regime. But the latter’s role and influence will be greatly diminished and it is likely it would be forced to accept conditions dictated not by its opponents, but by its supporters.

The latest headlines may focus on Russia’s full-blown entry to the Syrian war. Perhaps attention is better paid to what this means for the Damascus regime and just how weak it is becoming.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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