The Syrian file is definitely of extreme importance in the evolution of current international relations. Not only because it would mean, first of all, the end of the indescribable tragedy the inhabitants of this state, locked in a devastating civil war, have experienced for well over five years now. But because other actors from the international scene are involved one way or another in the Syrian issue, the file gaining an entirely particular systemic importance, its solution being bound to register wide-ranging shifts from a systemic standpoint precisely because of this.
On one hand, Syria’s neighbours with regional power aspirations, Turkey in particular, but also Iraq, are involved in the developments of this fratricidal war that has resulted in tens of thousands of victims and large-scale material damage, the former already having armed forces on Syrian territory for around three weeks now, and the latter having to fight a self-proclaimed state – the Islamic caliphate – on its territory and Syria’s territory.
Syria’s neighbouring states, once again with Turkey at the top of the list, but also Jordan and Egypt, have to bear the burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the Syrians also making most of the migratory wave of over 1 million people that came crashing down on Europe starting in August last year, shaking the European Union at its core (the impact of this phenomenon is yet to be absorbed). Other neighbours of Syria are direct participants in the civil war, Iran backing the Assad regime, which is also backed by the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, financed by Tehran, but every time Iran tries to ship weapons to Lebanon (to the Shiite militias) Israel does not hesitate to intervene in force (it even has a protocol in this sense with Russia).
On the other hand, great systemic powers, first of all the U.S. and Russia, but also others, members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting against Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, are direct participants and influence the evolution of the civil war. Seen from this perspective, the Syrian civil war is defined by the fight against the Assad regime carried out by opposition forces which consist of a wide range of participants – from Al Qaeda to Al Nusra, a group which recently split ranks with this global terrorist network, from armed opposition forces backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates or Turkey to the Daesh Islamic caliphate, with the list of combatants not being exhausted. At the same time, Kurdish forces from Syria, backed by the U.S., are fighting against Daesh, but have lately been in open confrontation with the Assad regime too.
On the Assad regime’s side there is Iran, which has sent armed forces in its support ever since 2011, from the start of the civil war, and has also used the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, and Russia, which intervened in the conflict with its air forces in September 2015. The opposition forces are backed by the U.S. and the other aforementioned states. On the other hand, the evolution of the civil war has outlined the prominent role played by the U.S. and Russia, which brokered and organised a ceasefire based on a resolution adopted in this sense by the UN Security Council on 18 December 2015, which stipulated the ceasefire and the start of negotiations for a roadmap for peace and elections. However, simultaneously with the UN resolution, against the backdrop of the U.S.-led coalition, Saudi Arabia organised a Sunni coalition (December 2015) in Riyadh, consisting of over 30 states whose common denominator is their goal of removing the Assad regime and maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.
The developments in recent weeks saw changes, some significant, in this extremely complex and varied picture of the civil war. On one hand, against the backdrop of the proliferation of a Russia-Turkey conflict, as a result of the incident in which the Turkish air force shot down a Russian tactical bomber, a large-scale shift took place at the end of June 2016, Ankara announcing the “warming up” of its relations with Russia. A
fter experiencing, on 15 July 2016, a military putsch that the Turkish nation, mobilised in an exemplary way in support of democracy, neutralised, Turkish President T. Erdogan paid a visit to Moscow on August 9. The new position adopted by Turkey in the Syrian civil war took the observers of the international scene by surprise, both because it was completely opposite to the previous one, but also given its implications on the evolution of the overall situation in Syria. Ankara now agrees with Syrian leader Assad playing a political role in formulating the future of his country, at least during the transition period, but at the same time, starting in mid-August 2016, Ankara started to systematically attack, even with the use of armoured forces, Kurdish positions in Syria, the Kurds’ organisation being considered by Turkey to be a terrorist organisation despite the fact that it is militarily and politically supported by the U.S., but also by Russia (preponderantly politically). At the same time, the Kurdish forces have come under air strikes from Assad’s air forces, the Syrian regime being concerned that an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria would be the start of the state’s disintegration.
Likewise, Ankara’s goal is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state entity in northern Syria, this being considered a grave existential threat since a preponderantly Kurdish area is located close-by in Turkey’s south-east. At the same time, it has to be noted that the negotiations that started in Geneva in March 2016, in line with the UN resolution, negotiations that took place under U.S.-Russia aegis, have showed signs of increased strain, being basically interrupted, the Lavrov-Kerry agreement on a ceasefire between combatants in Syria (except Daesh and the Kurds) by August 2016 (reached in March 2016) being already outdated.
That is why the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China (4-5 September 2016), was eagerly awaited, with hopes pinned on a new agreement between the sponsors of the peace process in Syria. As known, G-20 appeared against the backdrop of the 2008 crisis, intended as a body for global economic governance that convenes periodically at the level of heads of states and governments. Hence, the summit in China was attended by the leaders of the main states involved in Syria, both from Europe but also from North America and Asia. At least until Monday morning, no agreement had been reached between Moscow and Washington, the Obama-Putin meeting, which lasted around 90 minutes, much longer than expected, ending inconclusively (September 5). A ceasefire agreement in Syria is very necessary at this moment because the humanitarian situation in this country is continuously deteriorating, against the backdrop of the resumption of military operations, the case of the large city of Aleppo being symptomatic.
The American and Russian leaders have tasked the two states’ diplomats to identify through negotiations solutions to the problems left standing. According to an American official, quoted by ‘Le Monde’ on September 5, “the agreement which is currently being negotiated entails mainly a ceasefire throughout the country, the lifting of the siege of Aleppo and the demilitarisation of the northern areas of this city.” U.S. President B. Obama also stated that “we have serious disagreements with the Russians about those who support them and the process necessary to bring peace to Syria.”
Based on news reports, it is known that Russia is holding back from reaching an agreement as long as the opposition groups backed by the U.S. and the Middle East states that are members of the coalition are not separated from Al Qaeda militants, since they overlap in some areas. Likewise, American officials have signalled that “if an agreement can be reached, we want to do so urgently, because of the humanitarian situation. However, we must ensure that it is an effective agreement (…) If we cannot get the type of agreement we want, we will walk away from that effort.”
Hence, negotiations between the heads of U.S. and Russian diplomacy will decide in the following days the type of agreement that would allow for a cessation of hostilities and the relaunch of negotiations for the start of the peace process in Syria. Meanwhile, the civil war continues. It is to be hoped that, against the backdrop in which Turkey has modified its stance toward the Assad regime and the Kurdish forces have pulled back to the east of the Euphrates, a new negotiation process would have higher chances of success than the previous one.