Syrian conflict in fifth year without solution

This week, the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year without resolution. The country has been divided and many areas devastated. Four million Syrians have fled, six million are internally displaced and 2,20,000 have been slain since March 15, 2011.

This, after democracy dem-onstrations in Damascus and clashes in the southern city of Deraa and across the country were transformed into a global war that in 2013 drew Islamic State (IS) holy warriors from 87 countries and Western and regional states belonging to a US-led anti-IS coalition. However, this grouping only emerged last year after IS crossed the border into Iraq and seized Mosul, that country's second city.
In spite of the continuing violence, President Bashar al-Assad’s media and political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Deccan Herald, “Every Syrian feels there has been a change over the past year. The army is taking the initiative and liberating areas” from IS, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, and other armed fundamentalist groups.

Nevertheless, “the Syrian people have accommodated themselves to the fact that the war is going to last” by planting and harvesting their fields, launching new businesses, and carrying on with life. She is highly critical of the western powers for failing to implement the UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to the flow into Syria of fighters, weapons and funds destined for insurgents. Some $60 million in cash for IS, reportedly, enters Syria every month from Turkey. “They pass resolutions but do not pressure Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to halt” such support for armed groups.

“UN envoy Steffan De Mistura came here and met with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. We agreed to freeze fighting in several areas of Aleppo and restore services to Salaheddin. The next day, the armed groups refused.” They subsequently refused to meet with a mission headed by Khawla Mattar sent to Aleppo by De Mistura. Nearly 70 per cent of Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city, is controlled by the government while 30 per cent and the countryside are held by armed groups. Syrians from insurgent-held areas are migrating to the government sector where security and services are better.
Syrians are also moving from rural and contested urban areas to Damascus and coastal cities held by the government. Of 18 million Syrians still in the country, out of a pre-war total of 22 million, between one-third and one-half dwell in Damascus, now the largest city, which is crowded with people and jammed with vehicles. Water, electricity and services are severely stretched.

Syrians and some external players agree there is no military solution but prospects for a political settlement are poor. External powers involved in the conflict have not agreed on how to handle it. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France and Britain continue to give priority to the ouster of Assad while Spain, Italy and Greece argue that he has to be part of the solution. Germany is gradually moving towards adopting that position. However, a European source said Britain and France dictate to the bloc.

Contradictory policy

The US continues to follow a contradictory policy that permits other powers to diverge destructively. Last November, US President Barack Obama was asked if launching the transition was conditioned on Assad’s removal. He replied, “No,” but has recently agreed to train 5,000 “moderate” fighters a year for three years for initial deployment against IS – and eventually against Assad. He is seen by a majority of Syrians – whether they like him or not – as being the only man who can hold their country together until the end of the conflict and beyond.

Facing jihadis in their Arab backyard and at home, some European countries are becoming “more realistic but not realistic enough,” said Anas Joudeh of the Syria-based opposition group, Building the Syrian state. The US bombs IS while it trains and arms so-called “moderates” who will ultimately join IS or al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra.

There have been discussions among both internal and expatriate opposition groups in Cairo and Paris with the aim of agreeing on five simple principles: preservation of the unity and sovereignty of Syria and the country’s institutions and army; the need to fight terrorism, to build democratic structures and ensure political freedoms. While most groups agree, there is no agenda or plan or road map. “We work without much hope. But we cannot stop working,” stated Joudeh.

He revealed that the Western and Gulf Arab backed expatriate National Council has accepted that Assad will remain in power until the end of the transition period instead of stepping down at its beginning. This demand prevented progress at last year’s UN-brokered negotiations between the government and opposition held in Geneva.

Russia held one round of talks between government and opposition figures and there are rumours of “Geneva III,” UN-sponsored talks between government and opposition, but there can be no political process until IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and scores of insurgent factions are suppressed.

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