EU’s bitter lessons

The European Union continues to struggle with its economic and migration crises. The huge debt, obsolete political and economic regulations and inability to manage its migration policy are important alerts for the EU indicating the Brussels’s need to change its compass, says Pino Arlacchi, Member of the European Parliament.

By pursuing the US political course in the Syria war, the EU did not get any visible profit. Instead, it was left alone to cope with the increasing flows of illegal migrants posing safety threats for the EU citizens.

Indeed, The Syrian scenario is very much alike to the one in Afghanistan in 1979. When the Soviet army entered in 1979 trying to set up a friendly government in the country and altering the Cold War balances in the region, The United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries started arming the anticommunist Afghan militia groups. The country was flooded with weapons while most of those weapons were in hands of Taliban. Shortly after that the US became the number one enemy for Afghanistan, says Arlacchi.

During the Syria war, the US have once again learned the bitter lesson as they did in Afghanistan. However, the Syrian opposition is so diverse and uncontrolled that its arming could have much tragic consequences. This is why the US used Saudi Arabia and Qatar as a sort of a liaison to keep the balance in the region. But we also saw the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that split the countries apart. Obviously, the strategic alliance of Iran, Russia and Turkey has played a crucial role in the Syria war. All the countries could be able to gain the trust from both people and decision-making powers in the region. At the same time the US along with the EU received little credibility from the Syrian government.

Moreover, the EU is swamped with its internal issues that it faces the risk of splitting apart. Ironically it may be, but with integrity being its main value, The European Union is falling apart today. A huge debt of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and other EU’s members and their inability to repay it explains the attempts of those countries to boycott the Brussels’s regulations.

According to Arlacchi, the world is changing its compass and the EU has to adapt to it. The West is losing its role of the world economic and political dictator due to its huge debt and ineffective policy. Instead, China and Eurasia are on the rise today.

Turkey forces aid group Mercy Corps to shut down its operations

Mercy Corps provides aid to around 500,000 people inside Syria each month Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Turkey’s government has abruptly forced a major international aid organisation to stop working to help Syrian refugees in Turkish territory.

Mercy Corps, one of the world’s largest humanitarian groups, was informed by the Turkish interior ministry that it no longer had permission to work in Turkey and must shut down its operations.

The aid group said Turkey gave no reason for the sudden halt and that it had been working from Turkey in close cooperation with the government since 2012.

“Our hearts are broken by this turn of events, which comes after five years of cooperation with the government of Turkey and other local partners,” Mercy Corps said.

Turkey has taken in around 3 million Syrians since 2011
Turkey has taken in around 3 million Syrians since 2011 Credit: Sam Tarling/Telegraph

Turkey’s government has shut down hundreds of NGOs since a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016, often claiming that the groups had links to terror groups.

Critics of Mr Erdoğan say he has used the coup as an excuse to crack down on civil society and stifle dissenting voices.

The Turkish press has carried allegations against Mercy Corps and other international groups in recent months, claiming that the NGOs were supporting armed groups against Turkey’s government.

Mercy Corps strongly denies the charges and says it is a strictly non-political group.

“We have every confidence in the impartiality and the integrity of our operations. We’re not a political organisation and our reason for being is to deliver assistance to civilians who need it the most,” said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, the group’s director of media relations.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting in Istanbul
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting in Istanbul Credit: AP

Turkey’s government has not commented publicly on the closure.

Mercy Corps said the decision would not stop it from delivering aid to civilians inside Syria but would prevent it from helping the roughly 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The group receives funding from the US, UK and EU and says it spent $34 million (£28 million) in Turkey in 2016.

“Our priority right now is to limit any adverse effects our departure from Turkey may have on the innocent men, women and children who depend on our assistance,” the group said.

The decision has forced Mercy Corps to lay off its Turkish staff and send its international staff home. The group said it was hopeful to open “a dialogue” with Turkey and receive permission to resume its operations soon.

Inside the Syrian Dust Bowl

The Assad family’s favorite international development organization tried to turn Syria into an agricultural powerhouse. Its failure sparked a civil war.

  • By Peter Schwartzstein

On July 15, 2012, Mahmoud Solh at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) received the news he’d long been dreading: Syrian rebel fighters had drawn too close to the center’s headquarters near Aleppo for the board of trustees’ comfort. As the director-general of an organization with 600 employees and a net expenditure of $71 million in 2014, he was going to have to shut most operations down.

The uprooting of the Middle East’s largest agricultural organization was an ominous early warning of the chaos that has since engulfed most of Syria. But it did not come as much of a surprise to the employees at ICARDA’s sprawling 2,500-acre research station in the village of Tel Hadya. As members of an organization charged with boosting food security in Syria, they knew that one of the underlying causes of the conflict — the poor agricultural conditions that fueled popular discontent across the country — was not getting any better. For years, they had witnessed the hardship of Syrian villagers up close, as extended bouts of low rainfall cut crop yields and pushed farmers off their land, which ultimately led some of them to take up arms.

“After the first year without rain, we started to see people struggle a lot. After the second, there was desperation,” an ICARDA plant breeder said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he sometimes still works in Syria. “And after the fourth, it wasn’t really a surprise to see them rise up.”

Solh, too, saw some of this coming. “What it did was that it forced migration from rural areas to cities,” he told me when we met at the organization’s temporary headquarters in a residential apartment building in an upscale Beirut neighborhood. “With more migration, there was more unemployment. Certainly among the young, there was a lot of frustration.”

But in 2012, after the kidnapping of two lab technicians by a local rebel group, along with an uptick in skirmishes on the adjacent highway, ICARDA’s departure suddenly took on a new urgency. The organization put previously laid evacuation plans into motion, ferrying more than 100 expat agronomists and hydrologists to Aleppo’s airport and flying them out of harm’s way. Syrian staff then hastily set about transferring the station’s most valuable technology to their annex in the city center while also dispersing ICARDA’s 400 sheep among local farmers for safekeeping. More than two-thirds of the flock was stolen and eaten before its transport to new pastures in Lebanon could be arranged.

As the situation continued to deteriorate through the fall of 2012, 100 remaining staff members, all of them Syrians, hurried to complete the drawdown. They took last-minute readings for decade-long research projects and scoured the black market to secure diesel to power generators for the station’s treasured seed bank.

When rebel militias, including the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, assumed total control of Tel Hadya in 2012, the last researchers were forced to leave ICARDA’s headquarters. Like more than half of the Syrian population, they have been scattered across the country and into neighboring states.

With the war showing few signs of abating, there’s little suggestion their technical know-how will be put to use in rebuilding the country anytime soon.

With the war showing few signs of abating, there’s little suggestion their technical know-how will be put to use in rebuilding the country anytime soon.

But some experts and former staff members, assessing ICARDA’s past activities, wonder if that might not be a bad thing. The projects that the organization pursued within Syria in cooperation with the country’s government are now earning the scrutiny of critics. And it’s not just the organization’s moral judgment they question, but also its professional competence.

ICARDA and the Assads

There is plenty of tragedy, but also some irony, in ICARDA’s forced departure from Syria. The reason the organization was based there in the first place was in large part because Hafez al-Assad, the country’s longtime dictator and father to Bashar, hoped it would prevent a catastrophic drought of the sort that is now fueling the country’s ongoing war.

Founded at the height of the Middle East’s population boom in the 1970s, ICARDA’s mandate was to improve agriculture in “marginal” environments around the world, where poor soil and water conditions made large-scale crop production difficult. The organization originally intended to operate from across the border in Lebanon but began fishing around for alternative bases when the civil war struck Beirut in 1975. The elder Assad, keen to increase Syria’s food production and thereby insulate his regime from external pressures, made the fledgling group such an attractive offer of land to the south of Aleppo that two years later it didn’t feel able to refuse.

Today, ICARDA receives funding from a range of states and development groups, including the Afghan government and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to operate in dozens of countries around the world. At the time of its flight from its Syrian headquarters, it had more than 120 projects outside Syria in progress, from Sudan to Uzbekistan.

But much of the organization’s attention was devoted to Syria. Even now, the financially stricken authorities in Damascus pay ICARDA its annual dues of half a million dollars. (Senior directors say money for projects in the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly hard to come by as donors redirect their giving toward Syria’s refugees.)

And the organization did assist Syria in earning a reputation, until recently, as the region’s agricultural powerhouse. For more than a decade, the country was self-sufficient in cereals and had been exporting wheat to Jordan and Egypt. To many neighboring states, which regularly spend large sums of money to buy foreign foodstuffs, Syria seemed the picture of agricultural health.

But all wasn’t well, and the measures taken to turn Syria into an agricultural power in the first place had a lot to do with this. The government sponsored the expansion of farmland, which grew from about 1.5 million acres in the mid-1980s to roughly 3 million acres by 2000. It also almost doubled the number of wells, which contributed to a rapidly falling water table. At the Tel Hadya station, ICARDA recorded a 40-meter drop in local water levels between 1984 and 2010. When the rains failed starting in 2006, farmers turned to groundwater for supplemental irrigation as they had during past droughts — but found that many of the wells had run dry or turned saline.

The Syrian government wasn’t blind to the perils of fast-depleting aquifers and moved to tackle the overuse of well water. But some of its solutions, while likely necessary from a purely environmental perspective, only contributed to rural hardship. In May 2008, authorities in Damascus dramatically cut diesel subsidies, raising the price of fuel from 7 Syrian pounds ($0.14) per liter to 25 pounds ($0.53) overnight. For many farmers, whose income had already tanked with reduced yields, the heightened cost of operating their pumps and transporting their goods to market was the final straw.

“Everything from the weather to the government was bad, but after the oil price [increase], we just gave up,” said Ahmed Talib, a former farmer from the town of Binnish, which is about 5 miles from the ICARDA station.

The fact that ICARDA was a close partner of the Syrian government as Damascus pursued these unsound policies means it must now shoulder a share of the blame, two middle-ranking employees of the organization suggested. Perhaps its senior directors, who enjoyed close relations with regime officials, could have pushed their friends to change tack.

“It was a culture of deference,” the ICARDA plant breeder said.

“No one was willing to be brave.”

“No one was willing to be brave.”

Mahmoud Solh, the director-general, rejects this argument, insisting that ICARDA had a limited local remit and that it held up its part of the bargain for several decades by helping boost overall food production in Syria. “This is why the government still appreciates us,” he said.

Solh also acknowledges, however, that the country’s use of water was “unsustainable.” The situation, he said, “was not optimal.”

ICARDA had good reason to be worried about the consequences of opposing the Syrian government. Ordinary citizens were fearful of speaking out against a government renowned for its intolerance of dissent. International organizations seemingly were too.

“If you are too critical, then they won’t cooperate with you,” said Adriana Bruggeman, a hydrologist at the Cyprus Institute who previously worked for ICARDA in Aleppo for 11 years. “Syria was our host. We were their guests, and you can’t keep on kicking your hosts.”

As the water situation spiraled out of control, farmers very soon also found themselves battling an array of botanical diseases, some of which agronomists attribute to climate change. An outbreak of wheat stripe rust, which stunts plant growth and shrivels wheat grains, killed off many crops in northwest Syria in the years prior to the war. With sky-high population growth raising demand for scarce resources by the year, no manner of innovations could overcome the challenging environment.

“Poverty, climate change, food security, [and] increasing populations are all worsening at a pace that I think is faster than the rate we can make improvements,” said Hassan Machlab, ICARDA’s Lebanon director.

The result for farmers like Talib was their forced exodus from their homes. Talib ended up in one of Aleppo’s fast-expanding migrant neighborhoods in 2010, before traveling south to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley when the war worsened in 2012. The town sided with the rebels early in the conflict and was subsequently heavily shelled by government forces. Not entirely coincidently, perhaps, Binnish is also the hometown of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s former chief propagandist who was killed this week, and a number of other senior jihadis.

Syria’s Brain Drain

If Syria is ever to recover from a war that shows few signs of ending soon, the likes of ICARDA will be sorely needed. Up to 50 percent of citizens derived at least some of their income from agriculture before the uprising, and with swaths of the country’s irrigation infrastructure now crippled and some soils denatured from wartime farming without fertilizers, the rural economy will need all the help it can get.

For this reason, ICARDA has worked to maintain a presence in Syria throughout the war. Several dozen employees have remained behind at the group’s Aleppo offices in the government-controlled district of Azamieh, where they keep an eye on ICARDA property and participate in several agricultural studies with their Syrian government counterparts on the city’s outskirts.

On the other side of the battle lines, the organization maintains loose connections with villagers, a number of whom keep tabs on the status of the Tel Hadya station and report back through Viber. They’re often paid in cash by couriers who cross the front line during lulls in combat. ICARDA received an exemption from the U.S. Treasury Department to conduct transactions in a sanctioned country.

Above all,

ICARDA is intent on preventing the destruction of its precious seed bank

ICARDA is intent on preventing the destruction of its precious seed bank, which was built to maintain genetic crop diversity in the Middle East and contains 143,000 deposits. Many of its samples existed nowhere else in the world until 2012. In a much publicized rescue operation, employees drove through the night and over the back roads of northern Syria to deliver more than 20,000 unduplicated gene samples to the Turkish border. And, so far at least, the news is good, with the facility still functional despite intermittent electricity supply.

Despite some looting of the sheep that sat next to the perimeter fence and a number of old cars, the entire station appears to be largely undamaged. Tel Hadya has avoided the brunt of government airstrikes. Ali Shehadeh, who managed the seed bank and is the most senior official remaining in Aleppo, says the disparate groups of rebels that have exchanged control of the facility over the past four years appear to understand the seed bank’s value and have left it untouched despite its array of valuable equipment.

“I think the international media effect … has helped,” he said. “We have the impression that they know how it helps Syria and the world.”

But even if the conflict comes to a close soon and Tel Hadya remains salvageable, ICARDA won’t ever again operate in Syria as it did before the war. With at least one veterinarian still missing — his fate unknown having being kidnapped shortly after the two abducted lab technicians were released — the memories remain too raw for some employees to return. Everything that has happened also brought home to the senior management the pitfalls of basing all their operations in one location. They’ve since decentralized their work and spread their staff around a range of new installations from Morocco to Ethiopia and India.

“We were naive. We thought it would be war [for] maybe a year and then we could come back,” Solh said. “But it won’t be like before.”

Neither, it seems, will anything in Syria.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Geneva Talks III: Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?

Author: Şakir Alemdar, PhD Candidate, Near East University, Nicosia Date: May 06, 2016

*Source: Daily Sabah ©

Geneva Talks III:
Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?

Summary

UN led Geneva III negotiations aimed at solving the Syrian conflict appears to have taken off despite earlier doubts. The first UN attempt after the Security Council resolution 2254 to start the talks was suspended when opposition threatened to leave the talks due to the continued Russian bombings. Then another attempt by the UN Syrian Representative De Mistura was successful and the first round took place between …. and ……. And the second round is scheduled to start on…….Whether Geneva III negotiations will in the end lead to a compromise solution or break down like all previous UN attempts remains to be seen.

The main reason behind the continuation of the ceasefire and the negotiations so far is that this is the first US-Russian push for a ceasefire and negotiations. It was this strong push which allowed the UN representative de Mistura to bring the parties together, while this had proved impossible to do so until then. So far there has not been any direct talks between the parties in Geneva, but instead a sort of proximity talks, where Mistura is talking to each party separately until a common basis could be built up. It is hoped that after such a common basis emerges it will be possible for de Mistura to bring the parties to face to face talks to reach a compromise.

The question to ask is what brought the US and Russia to a broad strategic understanding on Syria which opened the way for a joint effort to help the UN initiative. While the two global powers maintained their differences, they had agreed on the need for a solution in the conflict. They saw no benefit from the continuation of the conflict. The proximity talks were getting out of control creating major problems for both powers. The European Union was cracking under the refugee pressure from Syria and the conflict was giving signs of spreading to other countries in the region such as Iraq and the Gulf which risked a wider US Russian conflict.

Secondly both powers at that stage were feeling strong enough to impose a solution on their side in Syria. Russian air support which saved Assad showed him that he depends on Russia for survival. The moderate opposition groups also saw that without US support they could not win and get a solution at the table which could protect their interests. So both parties saw that without their great power backers, neither side could either continue the conflict for long or reach a diplomatic solution which would protect their interests.

Thirdly asymmetric importance attached by the US and Russia to Syria made such a broad understanding possible. While Russia attached top priority to Syria where she had military bases, Obama administration did not see Syria as strategically carrying top priority. Instead Obama thought it important to keep Russia as a partner in dealing with world issues in particular to fight against ISIL/DAESH and get a nuclear deal with Iran. This led Obama to avoid attacks on Assad, even turn a green light on for the Russian intervention which saved Assad and shifted the balance of power on the ground in favor of Assad. But once Russia entered Syria she kept bombing the moderate opposition much more that in bombed ISIL/DAESH trying to eliminate the moderate opposition and leave only Assad and the ISIL/DAESH in the ring. Russian thinking is that by leaving these two sides the West would chose Assad rather than the radical terrorist groups. But despite this the Russian-US understanding on Syria continued.

This US- Russian understanding led to a joint effort by the two to push for a Security Council resolution on a comprehensive solution in Syria. Thus the Security Council resolution 2254 was passed. Although it left many issues unclear and some others untouched, it nevertheless was aimed at a comprehensive solution and remains the basis of the subsequent resolutions or decisions on Syria. The two countries also pushed for a cessation of hostilities which was backed by another UN Security Council resolution 2268. Consequently Geneva III negotiations began.

The main issues which could derail the Geneva III negotiations need to be looked at here. Firstly the future of Assad is a critical issue which could make or break the talks. Assad might insist on remaining in power beyond the 18 month envisaged in the Resolution 2254. This is particularly so since he has been strengthened militarily by the Russian support and air attacks. Secondly the establishment of a non-sectarian administration in Syria’ agreed earlier is likely to prove quite difficult since Assad administration is a sectarian administration based on the dominance of the minority Shiite groups over the majority Sunnis. Will Assad or the Alewites or even Russia let this system change which would increase the weight of the Sunnis in the system? Thirdly regional rivalries such as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could make it quite difficult to reach a compromise agreement. Nuclear deal with Iran isolated Saudi Arabia and the friendly Gulf countries that are feeling vulnerable and see Iran as an expansionist power. In the same way, if the interests and worries of other regional powers are not taken into account in a compromise solution, this could lead to a regional tension and crises later. Some see that on the Assad side a deal might upset the Iranians and on the Western side it might create problems with Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Fourthly PYD and some allied groups approved a document that declares a federal system in the North of the country. This is likely to be a major problem because all outside stakeholder states except Russia reject this strongly.

In conclusion it could be said that some light at the end of a long tunnel seems to be a better description of the situation than a mere mirage in the desert. On the “light” side, there is a ceasefire, which already saved thousands of lives, negotiations, the backing of the two world powers and the huge cost of returning to the fighting again. On the “mirage” side the future of Assad, the regional rivalries, the establishment of a non-sectarian administration, and above all the military imbalance and the continuing Russian-Assad push to take the critical city of Aleppo risks every progress made so far. These can risk every positive step taken so far and turn them into a mirage. I think the scales are slightly heavier on the ‘light’ side at present and the hope is that the negotiations, while being difficult will continue. The longer the negotiations continue on and off, the light will get brighter and the negotiations will go in the direction of partial solutions in various places over time which could be linked up to create a Syrian wide solution. This looks the most promising and realistic path forward.

Introduction

Whether the Geneva III talks, which began on 9 March 2016 will put the nearly five-year-old Syrian conflict on to a diplomatic track for a solution is a critical question. It came after the US-Russian agreed cessation of hostilities in Syria which was backed by the Security Council resolution 2268 and came into force on 27 February 2016. The first attempt to get the parties start the talks after the critical 2254 resolution was suspended by the United Nations special envoy for Syria Mr. Steffan de Mistura on March 3, 2016. The reason was the threat by the opposition to leave the talks due to the continuation of the attacks by Russian and Assad forces. The next attempt for negotiations was successful which is now completed. The date for the next round will become clear later.

The Council Resolution 2268 backing the cessation of hostilities demanded that all parties involved fulfill their commitments. It also urged all Member States, especially ISSG (International Syrian Support Group) members – the European Union, the Arab League, the United Nations, and 17 countries, including the United States and Russia, who have been trying to push forward for several months – to pressure the parties to make sure that they fulfill their commitments and support efforts “to create conditions for a durable and lasting ceasefire.”

The Resolution also demanded the “full and immediate” implementation of the Council Resolution 2254 (2015), passed on December 18, 2015. This was the first Council resolution which focused on a comprehensive solution in Syria and set the framework for diplomatic negotiations. It had set out a roadmap to end the war in Syria: a national ceasefire, UN-mediated political talks and a two-year period to achieve a political transition. Other Council resolutions passed on Syria until then have dealt mainly with the humanitarian situation and the question of chemical weapons.

The first attempt to find a solution in Syria began in late 2011 when the Arab League launched two initiatives which failed. Then in January 2012 and in November 2013 Russia tried to get the Syrian government and the opposition talking in Moscow without much success. After that a joint effort by the United Nations and the Arab League coordinated by Kofi Annan raised hopes for a sort while. In January and February 2014, the Geneva II Talks on Syria took place, which was organized by the then UN Envoy to Syria Mr. Lahdar Brahimi which again failed to take off. On 30 October 2015, further talks started in Vienna involving officials from the US, the EU, Russia, China and various regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and, for the first time, Iran. Inclusion of Iran in the talks completed the missing link to get all the major outside actors involved in the negotiations.

The Syrian Conflict and the Parties

More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in this brutal conflict. Eleven million have been made homeless; 4.5 five million people left Syria became refugees living in neighbouring countries and about one million refugees entered Europe living in very difficult conditions. In addition the country is totally destroyed (BBC news 2016).

As Assad used brutal methods to suppress the demonstrations which began in 2011, the reaction grew and the situation escalated to a widespread uprising against Assad. This soon turned into a sectarian fight in a country where Alawite-led government of President Assad has been dominating the political system where majority is Sunni, for decades. Escalation to a full scale civil war followed, which then turned into a proxy war even risking a direct major power Russian-US confrontation.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule continue to fight in a complex war which destroyed the country. At present the Syrian conflict has turned into a complex problem where the Syrian Government Regime under President Bashar Al-Assad is supported by the Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Russians. The opposition/Rebels are made up of Syrian National Coalition, including a break-away portion of the Syrian Army made up of 70-100 separate groups, each with separate leadership, many of whom frequently fight amongst themselves. Lastly there is also a Kurdish element in Syria, PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party) and its armed wing YPG (The People’s Protection Units / Popular Protection Units). The Syrian National Coalition is supported by the Western powers but in particular the US, and regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While the Western powers support YPG Turkey opposes strongly seeing it as the extension of the PKK terrorist organization in Turkey. Among the opposition to Assad, there is also the most feared radical terrorist group ISIS/DAESH (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) whose brutal tactics outraged the world. Also there are the Jihadists, including the al-Nusra Front (or al-Qaeda in Syria).

Negotiations in Syria are conducted between the representatives of the Syrian Ba’athist government and Syrian Opposition, while the Western-backed Kurdish forces have stayed out of the negotiations framework. Also the radical opposition terrorist groups Salafist forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/DAESH) have not engaged in any contacts on peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Major Force Behind Geneva III Negotiations:
US-Russian Joint Push for a Ceasefire and Negotiations

Due to the disagreements between the Security Council permanent members on Syria, the Council has not been effective in the Syrian conflict until 2015. Then the US and Russia began to come to a broad understanding on Syria which led them push for negotiations.

Clearly one reason is that the USA and Russia saw that they have nothing to gain from further conflict and are now able to impose a solution on the parties. They have reached a strategic understanding behind closed doors on Syria and decided to push jointly for a ceasefire and negotiations. The asymmetric strategic value attached to Syria by the two powers made it easier to reach a broad understanding. Putin attached top priority to Syria where Russia had the only two military bases in the Mediterranean region. Russia continued to support Assad right from the beginning and made this clear. The US, on the other hand, did not see Syria as strategically very important to justify employing the kind of military -economic resources to the region to match Russia. Instead, the US saw Russian partnership in international issues and a nuclear deal with Iran as more important than Syria. Therefore, the US, right from the beginning, wanted to avoid engaging in a military operation in Syria against Assad in order not to worsen relations with Russia, which she saw as a partner in dealing with the world issues. Washington also attached top priority to nuclear issue with Iran and wanted to keep Russia on board but avoid pressuring and/or overthrowing Assad to give ammunition to the hardliners in Iran against the liberal Rohani, who wanted a nuclear deal (Smith 2015).

The US even went as far as assuring Russia publicly that she would not enter a proxy war with Russia in effect giving her a carte blanche on Syria (Hof 2015). This will probably go down in history as a “recipe for a guaranteed failure in diplomacy” book written by Obama to be studied by future generations of international relations students worldwide.

Secondly, Russia and the US now see that they could impose a solution on the parties in Syria as they became more dependent on them. Assad forces were saved from collapse by the Russian intervention and supply of huge amounts of weapons. Assad knows that he cannot continue without Russian support and if he tries to go it alone he might lose Russian support and even if his regime survives, might end up being tried in international courts for war crimes (Glass 2016). This does not mean that he will follow the Moscow line entirely and will not take risks but the message from Moscow is there.

On the side of the pro-western groups, there is a feeling that they are already outgunned and weakened substantially and has little room for maneuver and need the US support. They do not have the military power to continue fighting for long and fear the resumption of the Russian air attacks. The alternative, without US support, might be a defeat. Just before the cessation of hostilities Assad-Russian-Iranian push towards the critical Aleppo city made progress and almost encircled the city. US did not oppose these attacks strongly and left Assad gain a major advantage. Opposition fears that if the talks break down Russian-Assad forces could attempt to take the city and change the balance of power in the entire country.

While the support of the regional powers for the two sides has been important, it has not been enough to bring victory. Despite Iranian support Assad came to the brink of collapse and was saved by the Russians. The moderate opposition, on the other hand, despite the support of regional allies came to the brink of collapse and could not get any final results and needs the US support. So both sides in the Syrian conflict are under heavy pressure to come to an agreement and need the big power ally.

Thirdly, the proxy war between the two sides was getting out of control and giving signs of spilling over and creating bigger problems for Russia and the US. The refugee crises from the conflict is now threatening to derail the European project. European states could not agree on a common project on the refugee issue. Who will make decisions on the issue and how many refugees will Europe and the individual countries will take divided the members seriously. The US does not want this problem get out of control and threaten its European allies.

On the other hand, Russian economy is in real trouble due to low oil prices, collapse of the rubble and the western sanctions. Putin does not want to risk a wider and a longer conflict and get into a quagmire like Afghanistan which would worsen the already fragile Russian economy further.

Both powers also know that Syria is in ruins and after a peace agreement the country will need tens of billions of dollars to even stabilize and function and trillions for reconstruction over many decades. Some speculate that what appears to be the Russian military advantage might lead to a pro-Russian solution but when it comes to supporting reconstruction afterwards, the advantage will inevitably shift in favor of the Western countries.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015 and the Major Points of Disagreement between the Parties

The UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) calls on member states to fight ISIL/DAESH and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups and all other groups and individuals, terrorists associated with it. It further calls on the members to fight the other terrorists groups as may be agreed by the ISSG (international Syrian support group) and leave no safe heavens to the terrorists in Syria. Also it makes clear that ceasefire will exclude the fight against these terrorists groups which means that fighting will continue in many places. Finally, it calls for drafting of a constitution and support for the free and fair elections to be held within 18 months.

The biggest point of disagreement is the future of Assad. This is not talked about in the UN Resolution 2254 and reflects a clear disagreement between the Western and the Russian sides. This can make or break the negotiations. All major Western powers including the USA, France, Britain, Turkey and also the Free Syrian Army, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not accept the continuation of Assad beyond the transition period. For them accepting Assad to continue during the transition is already a major concession that they could accept only with major difficulty. While Obama administration was strongly calling for his departure in the past, today Washington is ready to accept the continuation of Assad at least during the transition period.

Russia insists that only Syrians can decide who will be the next president of the country, in effect trying to keep him in power as long as possible. Some argue that Russia will accept the departure of Assad only after a new government is formed and Russia secures the continuation of her old and newly established military bases in the country. By pulling back some of her forces from Syria immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Russia tried to gain diplomatic points but also force Assad to make concessions and accept departure after a certain time in the negotiations. If Assad does not make concessions and push for maximal demands, Russia may withdraw her support and Assad might face the prospect of a fall and international criminal court for war crimes.

The other point is that the ceasefire does not include attacks on the terrorist groups and individuals who mean that during the 18 months Assad will remain in power, the USA led coalition, Russian and Assad-Hezbollah-Iranian forces will continue attacking El-Nusra and ISIS/DAESH and other groups considered as terrorist. But what happens if Assad refuses to go after these terrorist groups are weakened or eliminated in 18 months? Already Russian backed Assad forces got the strategic town of Palmira, from ISIL/DAESH which has an airport and the ruins of the 2000 year old city scoring a propaganda point. Assad already talked of taking over the whole of Syria.

So far Assad shows no sign of accepting a proposed national unity government and rejected even a ‘transitional ruling body with full powers’ the main opposition demands. He added “The transition period must be under the current constitution, and we will move on to the new constitution after the Syrian people vote for it” Assad said 5(Karam, 2016).

But major powers agreed on the transitional body with full powers at a Geneva Conference in June 2012 which remains the basis of UN-mediated talks which are scheduled to resume in April 2016. Whether Assad is defying international community rejecting the basis of talks with the full support of Russia or acting in defiance of Russian desires is a critical question. In the coming days this will be clear and will have a major impact on the negotiations 6 (Hof, 2016).

The stress on non-sectarian administration in Syria is also important in the resolution. This is particularly so considering that the Assad administration is itself a sectarian administration where the small Alewite community has been ruling the majority Sunni population for decades. A non-sectarian administration would mean that the majority Sunni population would get a much stronger representation in the running of the country and Alewites will lose their former dominance that they have been enjoying until now. One question will be whether Assad and the dominant Alawite community around him will accept such a major change. Russia may also see the increasing weight of the Sunnis in the political system as something which could put the future of the Russian bases at risk. While a compromise might be possible, it will be difficult.

The question of who will participate in the elections does not have a clear answer. While the main terrorist groups, such as ISIL-DAESH as well as El Nusra will be excluded, other groups may also be kept out in the future. It is clear that the parties may disagree on the groups to be excluded from the process that may be put forward during the negotiations. Russian side wants to include some groups that are Assad allies within the opposition group attempting to dilute the opposition and weaken them in the negotiations. Russia has been arguing right from the beginning that there is no moderate opposition but merely anti Assad opposition that are terrorists. This is also likely to create major problems in the negotiations.

Apart from all these the Syrian peace process, might still be derailed by regional rivalries. Rising Iranian-Saudi rivalry reignited by the execution of a Shia cleric by the Saudis and the burning of some Saudi diplomatic mission buildings in Iran recently, risks a wider conflict which could derail the Syrian peace process. Iran claims to represent the Shia world and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Islam and they have been waging proxy wars in Lebanon, Yemen and more intensely in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran will be sitting at the table in the negotiations. Both leaderships also use the conflict in Syria and in other places to strengthen their popularity at home which makes the issue more complicated. Therefore, rising tension between Tehran and Riyadh which now has turned into a conflict between Tehran and the Arabs could derail the negotiations (Miller and Brodsky, 2016).

Also the lack of military balance on the ground will have a major effect on the negotiations. If the opposition breaks the ceasefire, Assad forces backed up by the Russians could use propaganda to prove the world that the opposition could not be trusted and does not want peace and justify a full scale counterattack on the outgunned and weakened opposition. But if the opposite was the case and Assad forces or Russia breaks the ceasefire, it is not clear how they will be punished (Kanat, 2016). This is likely to be a major advantage for the Assad side. It will be tempting for Russians, if the opposition does not make the critical concessions, to try to raise tension and bring military pressure on the opposition to get what it wants at the table. Already reports are coming in that Russian- Assad forces are trying to take Aleppo the critical city which could change the balance of power entirely in Syria.

It must be mentioned, however, that John Kerry warned Russia earlier that if these talks fail then Syria could be partitioned (Wintour 2016). How seriously this will be taken, given the past record of the Obama administration, is not clear.

A recent development is also worrying for the talks. PYD and some allied groups approved a document that declares a federal system in the North of the country (Al Jazerra 2016). While the US, Turkey, the UN and Assad opposed it, some argue that in the plan B of the US, a federal solution would be on the cards. So PYD and its supporters, lobbying hard for it might try to obstruct the negotiations in order to get support for a federal solution in Syria.

Finally, Russia and the US will need to deal not only with the parties in Syria but also with their own regional allies too. If the genuine interests and particularly the security interests of these regional actors are ignored, then a compromise agreement to be reached will still face serious problems.

Conclusions

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel or are we seeing a mirage in the desert? On the “light” side, there is a ceasefire, which already saved thousands of lives, and the huge cost of returning to the fighting again. Negotiating table has been set up and the UN is at work backed up by the two major world powers. On the side which could create a mirage, we can count the future of Assad, the regional rivalries, the establishment of a non-sectarian administration, push for a federal solution and above all the military imbalance on the ground. Continuing Russian- Assad push to take the critical city of Aleppo in particular is a very negative development. These factors can risk every positive step taken so far and turn them into a mirage.

In conclusion it could be said that some light at the end of a long tunnel seems to be a better description of the situation than a mere mirage in the desert. I think the scales are slightly heavier on the ‘light’ side at present and the hope is that the negotiations, while being difficult will continue. US-Russian push still continues and the parties are under serious pressure to negotiate. Considering the complexity of the conflict, a more realistic expectation would be small steps forward, stops and resumptions going in the direction of partial solutions in various places over time which could be linked up to create a Syrian wide solution. This looks the most promising and realistic path forward.

Şakir Alemdar, PhD Candidate, Near East University, Nicosia

Please cite this publication as follows:

Alemdar, Ş. (May, 2016), “Geneva Talks III: Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?”, Vol. V, Issue 5, pp.6 – 18, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=11638)

References

BBC news (2016 ) “Syria: The story of the conflict” 11 March

Hof, F. C. (2016) “Assad: Total Defiance” Atlantic Council, 4 April.

Hof, F. C. (2015), “Syria: Taking the Initiative, Acquiring some Leverage”. Real Clear Defense, 5 October.

Glass, Charles. (2016), “Russia and the US now have the power to impose peace in Syria” The Guardian, 13 March.

Kanat, K. B. (2016) “Cessation of hostilities in Syria” Daily Sabah, 29 February.

Karam, Z. (2016) “Syria’s Assad rejects ‘transitional body’ demanded by rebels Associated Press, 30 March.

Miller, A. D. and Brodsky, J. (2016) “Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Forever Fight”, foreign Affairs, 13 January.

Smith, L.(2015) “Obama Avoided Syria Action to Help Iran Negotiations, The Weekly Standard, 8, September

Wintour, P. (2016) “John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’if peace talks fail”, The Guardian, February 23, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/john-kerry-partition-syria-peace-talks.

Al Jazeera (2016) ‘Syria civil war: Kurds declare federal region in north’, 17 March Stream

Imran Awan

2 months ago – Shared publicly

The European Union was cracking under the refugee pressure from Syria and the conflict was giving signs of spreading to other countries in the region such as Iraq and the Gulf which risked a wider US Russian conflict.
http://www.siyasat.pk/india-and-international-siyasat-f10.html

Turkish Embassy in London PRESS RELEASE

Disisleri Turkish Foregin Ministry

PRESS RELEASE

  • Turkey has been facing threats and attacks emanating from Syria since the start of the conflict. So far, 158 Turkish citizens have lost their lives to the attacks originated from Syria.
  • The terrorist attack that took the lives of 32 Turkish citizens in Suruç on 20th July reaffirms that Turkey is under a clear and imminent threat of continuing attack from DEASH (Isis). Most recently, on 23rd July, DEASH attacked the border military post in Elbeyli and killed a Turkish soldier. It is apparent that the regime in Syria is neither capable of nor willing to prevent these threats.
  • Turkey has designated DEASH/ISIL as a terrorist organization since 2005, under its previous names and revised it by its new name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL on 10 October 2013.
  • Turkey is at the forefront of DEASH threat and our authorities exert every effort to counter it. It has to be born in mind that Turkey takes immediate action and precautions in all dimensions of countering terrorism, upon receiving concrete information and intelligence.

  • Individual and collective self defence is our inherent right under international law, as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter. On this basis, Turkey has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions against DEASH in Syria, including in coordination with individual members of the Global Coalition.
  • In the wake of increased security threats following the attacks against our security and law-enforcement forces in provinces of Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa and Kilis, in particular the terrorist attack in Suruç on 20 July 2015, all necessary measures are being taken and in this context, operations are also being carried out by the Turkish Armed Forces.
  • In this framework, we have informed the UN Security Council, and continue to inform international organizations. Our initiatives before other international institutions of which Turkey is a member, are ongoing.
  • Upon these recent attacks and threats directed against our national security, North Atlantic Council has been called for a meeting by Turkey under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty with a view to informing our Allies about the measures we are taking and the operations we are conducting against terrorism, as well as to holding consultations with them. The meeting chaired by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took place today (28th July).
  • Turkey strongly encourages its partners, to enhance efforts to counter DEASH’s terrorism financing by destroying and interrupting activities at their source, mainly in Syria and Iraq. International efforts should also be focusing on destruction of recruiting and facilitation networks that operate throughout the source countries and prevent dissemination of extremist propaganda.