Vienna talks: the powers of war override the forces of peace

Rateb Sha’bo – Tareq Aziza, November 28th 2015

Translated by: Ullin Hope

As events connected to the Syrian conflict continue to accelerate, the powers involved have remained unable to unite behind a possible solution. The prospect of what might be gained has continued to whet the appetite of the actors involved, and as a result they have failed to live up to their promises, saying one thing and doing another. This has made the intermittent conferences seem like nothing more than an empty charade.

On September 30, Russia intervened directly in Syria. This was followed by three terrorist attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS): On October 31, a Russian passenger flight was bombed in Egypt; on November 12, there were suicide bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, and on the 13th of the same month, the Paris attacks took place. Then, on November 24, a Russian fighter jet was shot down by the Turkish Air Force. These military events are central to the political event this article deals with; that is, the Syria peace talks in Vienna, which began less than a day after the Paris attacks.

The Vienna conference has pushed the shift established by the Syrian regime and its allies in to an advanced phase. They have managed to divert attention away from the political causes of the conflict to its violent, sectarian character. Since, the outbreak of the current open conflict in mid-March 2011, the Syrian regime has made a determined effort, politically and militarily, to bury the local political factors at its base. This has allowed for the replacement of the local political struggle, which has clear causes and potential solutions, with an ambiguous, unclear conflict between ‘the state’ and ‘terrorism.’ To achieve this, the regime has taken advantage, not only of its control over the mechanism of the state, but perhaps more importantly, over the symbolic capital the state provides through the high regard with which the public views such institutions.

As the regime and its associates have progressed towards realizing this disengagement, the conflict has moved beyond the Syrian borders and entered the phase of internationalization. Now that ISIS has moved from internal operation within the ‘caliphate state’ to operation abroad (the bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Russian passenger flight and the Paris attacks) the Syrian conflict fits more comfortably in to the framework of the global fight against terrorism, which is exactly what the Syrian regime has hoped and worked for all along.

Because the parties that sat around the negotiating table were not truly engaging with the Syrian conflict, the Vienna conference on November 14 has continued what started with the first shift. Instead of carrying the concerns of the Syrian people in their papers, they carried their own personal concerns, which have been expressed through the conflict. Two major shifts have now taken place as this conflict has raged on, turning it into a futile struggle as far as the interests of the Syrian people are concerned.

The road to Vienna

This is not the first time that we have seen heightened diplomatic activity between the various regional and international parties with a hand in the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. This time however, it seems they have taken an unprecedented dose of ‘mutual understanding’ and agreed on the necessity of taking serious political action that will supposedly put an end to the conflict. The truth is that this understanding has come out of Europe’s gravitation towards the Russian position, a change that has been influenced by ISIS expanding in to foreign territory with the three painful operations it carried out in Egypt, Lebanon and Paris over the weeks leading up to the Vienna conference.

Since 2012, the common ground in the official discourse of the various involved parties, whether they support the regime or the opposition, has been the idea that a political solution must be reached. The first practical translation of this shared understanding came on 30 June 2012, when the Geneva I conference issued its famous Communique. At the time, Saudi Arabia was able to keep Iran out of the proceedings, which meant a weak presence by the Syrian regime and its interests. In Vienna, there has been a noticeable change, not only in form, through Tehran’s attendance, but also in content: Despite the 7th clause of the Vienna meeting’s Joint Statement, which says that work will continue according to the Geneva Communique, there has been a real retreat from the tone set in 2012. In Geneva, there was talk of a “transitional governing body with full executive powers.” In Vienna, discussion revolved around “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance.” This shows that there has been a political retreat by the West and the United States and an advance by Russia and Iran.

With the above in mind, it is understandable why Turkey shot down the Russian Sukhoi 24 fighter jet on the pretext that it had breached Turkish airspace. Ankara’s goal was to change the course of events set in motion by the Paris attacks, using the protection of its NATO membership and support from the United States, which has expressed concern over Russia’s enthusiastic intervention in favor of the Syrian regime. The path events had taken was leading towards Russia’s way of ending the conflict, which serves the interests of Bashar al-Assad. There can be no doubt that John Kerry’s optimistic remarks about change and “a big transition for Syria”[1] made Turkey accelerate its obstructive plan.

At the Vienna meetings, those present clearly avoided the problem of Bashar al-Assad by agreeing to withdraw the idea of him immediately stepping down. It seemed that matters were moving towards working with him as a de-facto “part of the transitional period.” This has not been changed by repeating the kind of rhetoric French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius used on November 21, when he insisted that Bashar al-Assad “cannot represent the future of Syria,” and stressed that: “We must wipe out the terrorists; we are focusing all our force on combating Da’esh and this is nothing new”[2].

This new narrative indicates a decline in the West’s concern over the regime’s terrorism against civilians and a tendency towards making use of it in the ‘war on terror.’ This is what the regime has persistently begged for from the ‘international community,’ so that it can be allowed back in to the ranks of the global system. Sidestepping the ‘Assad problem’ and unanimous agreement on the priority of fighting terrorism formed the basis of the Vienna meeting, which has defined the new international approach to Syria. The recent remarks by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius about the possibility of the Syrian Army joining the fight against ISIS have made the political position of Europe towards the Syrian conflict even clearer.

The Paris attacks and the ‘war on terror’

Generally speaking, in the months leading up to the Paris attacks the international community’s approach towards the ‘Syrian dossier’ was moving away from the idea of realizing the Syrian people’s aspirations of achieving a real political change in the country. The Paris attacks pushed the West even further towards seeing the conflict in Syria as a fight against terrorism rather than a political struggle to break up the chronic tyranny that is choking the country. Preoccupation with the necessity of ‘combating terrorism’ began to take hold of the international political mindset; its causes were disregarded, as if terrorism was an independent problem that had no roots except in the countries that support terrorist organizations. Russian efforts coordinated with ‘Western partners’ contributed to making ‘terrorism’ the main topic in Syria and it became an immediate problem that the world had to deal with and solve. The direct Russian military intervention in the name of the ‘war on terror’ received the West’s blessing (including Israel’s) despite of the fact that Russia tried to exploit this ‘authorization’ to shore up the Assad regime.

French President Francois Hollande’s visit to Moscow also belongs to the category of Russian-Western rapprochement over Syria, as does the visit to the Russian capital by the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, who met with Putin to discuss “international efforts in the war on terror” and important developments in the region, especially in Syria; after all, the parties to the Vienna meeting tasked Jordan with preparing a list of terrorist groups operating in Syria. King Abdullah had already announced, on November 11, that Russia was a “main” player in finding a political solution in the country and that the war against ISIS was all-inclusive. “Acting together in Syria will allow for the construction a bloc that will enable us to confront the group,” he said. His remarks came just a few days after Jordan had agreed to set up military coordination with Russia. The Jordanian government justified this by saying that the goal was to “guarantee the security” of the Kingdom’s borders[3].

Russia’s strategy of doing as much as possible to confine what is happening in Syria to ‘the war on terror’ is making progress. This is why Russia has not hesitated to send tacit threats to the Gulf States. On November 19, the CEO of a Russian think tank told the pro-Kremlin news website Pravda.ru that there are individuals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar who “organize and sponsor terrorist attacks.” The report’s author also suggested that Russia could take military action against the two countries under the UN Convention (article 51 guarantees the right of states to self-defense and was used by the United States when it invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.) Russia has also threatened Turkey, which has strong ties with many of the powerful Islamist groups in northern Syria[4].

As we said earlier, by shooting down a Russian warplane above the border zone in northern Latakia countryside Turkey reshuffled the cards, slowing the momentum that had been created by the Paris attacks. At a time when Russia has acted as if it is the uncontested lord of land and sky in Syria, Turkey has insisted on maintaining its interests in the north of the country, an area it considers to be directly linked to Turkish national security. This is why Ankara, rather limiting its support to Syrian armed opposition groups, has recently begun to form and support armed Turkmen militias, which are based in the north of the country and linked directly to Turkey. Ankara has also talked about protecting Syria’s ‘Turkmen minority.’ On November 23, sources in Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s press office told Reuters that a few days after the Russian ambassador was summoned over the “heavy bombardment” of Turkmen villages, Ankara had called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmen-populated areas[5]. Several days later, the spokesperson for the Justice and Development Party said that Turkey was “standing by the Turkmens in every way”[6] but neglected to mention the Syrian citizenship of the ethnic group’s members, in what seemed like an attempt to turn them in to a conduit for Turkish influence.

Syrians unrepresented and their influence Limited

Although the momentum of discussions on a settlement has picked up recently, the role played by Syrians in the twists and turns their country is witnessing has diminished exponentially, both for the regime and the various opposition bodies. No Syrian actor was directly represented at the Vienna conference or involved in drawing up the plans that the ‘big’ states laid down for what will happen next. It is true that the regime was represented by its supporters the Russians and the Iranians, and the opposition was represented by its patrons the Turks and the Gulf States. However, this secondary presence only appeared through the prism of these state backers’ interests. The worst part is that Syria’s conflicting forces have become so politically bankrupt that they are now willing to become dependent on any actor to achieve their political ambitions. This does not mean that they no longer figure in international calculations but it does mean that their effectivity and influence is now defined by two factors: the first is their military capability on the ground, which depends on the support of allies; the second is their ability to resist being wiped out or having their political influence severely curtailed. To prevent this they must understand that the supporting powers have become tied to the massive investment they have made in the conflict, and are therefore tied to their local allies.

The truth is that the states involved in the Syrian conflict are racing – through their ‘allies’ – to ‘fill the vacuum’ created by the new approach the United States has taken to Middle East policy during Barack Obama’s term. The US president has worked to enshrine the underlying strategy of this new approach, so that his country can become the world’s ‘arbitrator’ rather than its ‘ruler’ – its ‘judge’ rather than its ‘policeman’[7]. Consequently, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf States have spared no effort in their attempts to push the Syrian conflict, within the general environment allowed by Washington, in the direction that best serves their interests.

Peace, or a new period of conflict?

The ‘vacuum’ created by the US has prompted the region’s powers to intervene in Syria under a general understanding with Washington, which now prefers to eat its chestnuts without burning its fingers. By clearly distancing itself from matters, the US has given the Middle East’s regional powers more space to maneuver and created a less centralized global order.

The current convergence of stances around ‘combating terrorism’ will not rule out the fundamental differences over the issue of Syria and the coming period. French president Francois Hollande for example, notwithstanding his rapprochement with Russia and his efforts to mobilize international support for a war against ISIS, has “two goals in his talks with Vladimir Putin. First he wants to persuade Russia to direct its airstrikes away from the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition and onto targets belonging to IS. Second, he wants a firmer understanding that Russia will not stick indefinitely behind Bashar al-Assad. The French feel they have made a significant change in policy by de-prioritising the removal of the Syrian leader. It took a good deal of pride-swallowing to make the concession, because until [mid-November] Paris was President Assad’s greatest scourge”[8]. Now France will surely be waiting for a concession from Russia. The situation is the same inside the ‘unified camp,’ where the stances of the countries that support the regime vary in a number of ways. Russia’s interests and approach differ to those of Iran. While Russia has often alluded to the possibility of negotiating Assad’s future, Iran has insisted on holding on to him to the very end. The Iranian strategy is to strengthen the role of pro-regime sectarian militias at the expense of the Syrian army, as Tehran usually does, by creating military formations or power centers inside countries that run parallel to the state[9]. The Russians, who have clung to the army, are seeking to strengthen its capabilities and preserve its unity.

Conclusion

Because Syria’s bloody conflict has continued in this manner, mechanisms of opposing influence have taken shape. On the one hand, most Syrians have begun to look for a way out, their dreams shattered. On the other, it is now in the interests of some for the conflict to continue, and they are working to ensure that it does. However, more importantly than this, the regime is still the only power in Syria today with the status of a state, which means that international law guarantees it certain rights, such as seeking the help of allies, applying joint defense agreements and the like. Damascus now prefers to let the war continue, because an end to the war would mean obligations at home that it is unable to fulfill. This applies to more than the economic abyss that is currently obscured behind the veil of war and the regime’s inability to realize the most basic aspirations of its supporters, who have sacrificed tens of thousands of young men in what they have begun to realize is a meaningless conflict. There are political concessions that the regime is afraid to make, like breaking its monopoly on power and what that could mean in terms of being held to account thereafter. The powers that favor the continuation of the war have therefore overridden the powers that want peace, and this has formed a considerable obstacle to achieving tangible progress in Vienna and elsewhere.

So, peace in Syria is a long way off. The two main parties to the conflict (the regime and the Islamists) both favor its continuation. Therefore, it is probable that the Syrian-Syrian meeting called for in Vienna will amount to nothing more than an exchange of angry remarks and a search for reasons to disagree. The goal of those involved, is to obstruct any solution and perpetuate the conflict for as long as possible.

The way out of a situation like this is to make the parties to the conflict accept a solution, and this will remain impossible until the main States involved reach a real agreement and force it upon them. If Syria cannot serve the interests of all the parties involved in the conflict, who have now been investing a great deal in it for some time, there will have to be a movement of political offsetting before a solution that is forced on the parties inside the country can be to set in motion. This means that any potential settlement in Syria is connected with settlements in other parts of the world.

1 – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/world/europe/john-kerry-france-isis.html?_r=0

2 – https://arabic.rt.com/news/801176-%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D9%84%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%83%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%86-%D9%8A%D9%85%D8%AB%D9%84-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A8%D9%84-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7/

3 – http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/12277441/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%AB%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%AA%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84–%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8-

4 – http://www.pravdareport.com/russia/politics/19-11-2015/132648-russia_qatar-0/

5 – http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/23/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-idUSKBN0TC0GZ20151123

6 – http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?pageID=238&nID=91698&NewsCatID=352

7 – Yousif FAKER AL DEEN, Syria and Iran through the American Repositioning, DRSC

8 – Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Hollande in Moscow: A new era in Russian-French relations?

9 – Syria: Warlord’s Era and Reviving of Protectorates and Tutelages, DRSC