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December 6, 2022

Whither Syria?

The speeding-up of events on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war is so dynamic that it caught our editorial off-guard too. Prepared early on, the previous editorial, which presented the tribulations of the Russian-American agreement on a new ceasefire (the second one) in the Syrian civil war, was already behind the events when published on Monday, September 19. On Saturday, September 17, an airstrike carried out by the international coalition led by the U.S., airstrike in which British, Danish and Australian fighter jets took part alongside the American ones, hit regime armed forces in the sensitive region of Aleppo, killing 30 to 80 soldiers and wounding several dozen (according to one of the latest assessments, those killed were in fact ISIL prisoners).

The Damascus regime declared the end of the ceasefire agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia on September 13, and Russia asked the UN Security Council to convene in order to discuss the matter. Referring to the circumstances of the incident, the Russian representative at the UN pointed out after that meeting, on Sunday, September 18, that the U.S. broke two commitments made in relation to this new agreement, which was to expire on Monday (September 19) and was to be followed by the relaunch of the negotiations in Geneva.

The Russian diplomat thus stated that “firstly, they violated commitments to cease fire which were agreed together with us in February and reaffirmed in the last days/…/ Secondly, they violated their commitment to the government of Syria which they gave when launching their air operation in the Syrian sky/…/They promised the Syrian government then that they will not deliver airstrikes at Syrian government forces/…/It is very strange to believe that it was a coincidence. The time (of the airstrike), as well as other aspects of the situation, point to the possibility that it might have been a provocation.” Using even harsher language, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out that “they [US airstrikes] not only call into question… but put in jeopardy everything that has been reached by the international community both within the framework of the International Syria Support Group, the UN Security Council, and on bilateral basis.”

Thus, on Sunday it seemed that a massive crisis of confidence had intervened between the two sponsors of the ceasefire agreement, the levying of mutual accusations not being absent from such moments. A harsh exchange between the spokesperson of the Russian diplomacy and the U.S. ambassador to the UN, which took place on Twitter, seemed to remind us of the “good old days” of the Cold War. The accusations of supporting, through such an action, the common enemy Daesh, were not absent from Moscow, the latter recalling that President Reagan posed with Afghan mujahedeen in 1983, at a time when the latter were slaughtering Russian soldiers. And the American press did not hesitate in its turn to question the good faith of the Russian partners. Hope for the resumption of negotiations in Geneva and the start of the peace process in Syria seemed extinguished. Even more so given the fact that by stating that Saturday’s incident shattered the ceasefire agreement, Damascus started bombing aid convoys moving toward the areas disputed by rebels and government forces, particularly Aleppo. In this context, a UN humanitarian aid convoy was destroyed on Monday, September 19, leaving 20 people dead (most of them members of the Red Crescent), raising even more the tension between the two sponsors of the peace process. The trading of barbs and accusations multiplied. UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that “our outrage at this attack is enormous /…/ The convoy was the outcome of a long process of permission and preparations to assist isolated civilians.”

The turn of events is really extremely rapid and this acceleration’s impact on the Syrian civil war is predictable. Basically, the lack of uniformity of opinion between the two sponsors of the peace process, which have exerted ample diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict, opens the outlook for a deepening and widening of the war. In the short term, what should have followed the resumption of the ceasefire in Syria, namely military cooperation between Russian and American military experts in the fight against ISIL (Daesh), is jeopardised, so that the extension of action not just in Syria but also globally on the part of this self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate entity is assured (one of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the U.S. has been claimed by ISIL, the others will be assessed from this standpoint). Following news about the bombing of the humanitarian convoy, John Kerry, head of American diplomacy, stated on Monday that “the Syrians didn’t make the deal; the Russians made the agreement/…/The important thing is the Russians need to control Assad who evidently is indiscriminately bombing, including of humanitarian convoys.” Kerry’s statements however offer a glimmer of hope that things could resume their normal course. He pointed out in the same statements: “So let’s wait and see, collect the facts. We need to see where we are, and then we’ll make a judgment. But we don’t have all the facts at this point.” And an AP report published on Tuesday emphasised this when it stated that “despite the setback, the State Department said it was prepared to extend the cease-fire window in the hopes that if it held, the U.S. and Russia could then turn to their planned military cooperation against the Islamic State militants and al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria.”

As can be noticed, apart from lightning-speed developments, at the crux of the issue there are many more ingredients involved in an explosive mix on the ground in Syria, making the attainment of a peaceful solution to the Syrian civil war extremely difficult over a brief timespan. On the one hand, in northern Syria, Turkish armed forces are extending through military action the area they control, so that it would reach around 5,000 square kilometres. Ankara becoming an actor without whom – in our assessment – a solution can no longer be reached in Syria. On the other hand, members of the Sunni Coalition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey etc.), as well as EU states, consider that the removal of B. Assad, in other words his non-involvement in the peace process, not even in the process of transition to it, is imperative, some capitals wanting to see his role ending sometime after the ceasefire. And great powers like France levied criticism toward both the U.S. and Russia for the fact that the details of the ceasefire agreement they reached are not being revealed. Finally, the sponsors are also starting to show frustration/fatigue with the failure to clarify the situation and obtain at least seven days of “quiet” in order to start cooperating in the fight against ISIL and the Al Qaeda network. Russia evokes the fact that it is extremely difficult to convince Damascus of the significance of respecting the agreement as long as the rebels are breaking it repeatedly in an attempt to win ground at the expense of government forces. At the same time, the U.S. considers it necessary for Russia to properly exercise its influence over Damascus.

But it seems both Moscow and Washington have the will to persevere in relaunching the peace process. As the U.S. State Department spokesperson emphasised on Monday, “we are prepared to extend the cessation of hostilities, while working to strengthen it and expand deliveries of assistance/…/We will be consulting with our Russian counterparts to continue to urge them to use their influence on Assad to these ends.”

Obviously, at this stage, the limits of the great powers’ systemically modelling action are becoming visible in Syria, even when two of the strongest reach an agreement. The divergent actions of local players (smaller or greater in size), who are pursuing their own interests, deliberately impede the implementation of crisis resolution, at the cost of significantly worsening both the human and material losses of the target-state and regional instability. And this is possible especially at a time when the system has entered a rearrangement stage, such as the current one, when it is no longer bipolar (U.S. and USSR) nor unipolar (U.S.), but neither stabilised in a long-term equation suitable for the great powers.

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