Scraping the bottom of the barrel

With the likes of Josh Landis predicting more of the same (fragmentation, radicalization, impoverishment, displacement) in Syria, it would be more daring than I am to predict improvement. But it is still interesting to ask what could possibly make a difference and turn things in a more positive direction?

There are two propositions on the table at the moment.

One is the UN-proposed “freeze” for Aleppo. This is intended to be more than a ceasefire. It would freeze the warring forces in place, thus preventing them from simply being redeployed to fight elsewhere, as well as initiate local governance on a cooperative basis between the opposition and the regime. Monitoring would initially have to be local, with international observers deployed in due course. In the absence of effective monitoring, the regime would be likely to use any such freeze to redeploy its forces (including intelligence cadres and paramilitaries) to the south, where the opposition is making headway. It is much harder for the opposition to follow suit, because its fighters generally focus on their home areas and its supply and logistical support is far less developed.

The second proposition is a Russian proposal for intra-Syrian dialogue. This will supposedly convene January 26-28 on the basis of the June 2012 Geneva communique, which calls for an interim governing body with full executive powers. Moscow, Tehran and the Syrian regime view this formula as allowing Bashar al Assad to remain in place and preside over a “national unity” government. The opposition and Washington say it means Bashar has to exit, or at least give up all executive power (which if implemented would mean that he would consequently exit sooner rather than later). There is no sign that this difference of interpretation has been bridged.

Separately, neither of these propositions seems likely to succeed. The Americans and Europeans are allowing both to move along, faute de mieux. The question is whether together they might be more likely to produce some sort of positive outcome.

I’m not seeing it yet. The missing ingredient is enforcement. Only if and when the international community gets together behind a UN Security Council resolution that makes it clear Bashar will suffer irreparable damage to his hold on power will he be willing to countenance a serious ceasefire in Aleppo that blocks him from redeploying his forces. This would require the Americans to be prepared to execute air strikes if there is a violation. As for creation of an interim governing body with full executive powers, enforcement would rely heavily on Russian willingness to cut Bashar’s military and financial supply lines if he transgresses. Putin has given no indication he is prepared to do that. Even if he were, Iranian support might keep Bashar afloat.

This brings us back to the inevitable:  there is no diplomatic solution in Syria in the current military situation unless Washington and Moscow come to terms and agree on one, including a mutual commitment to enforcement. They certainly have a common strategic interest in a negotiated settlement. Both capitals want the Islamic State and Jabhat Nusra, the main jihadi extremist organizations, defeated. They differ mainly on whether Bashar al Assad is a bulwark against the jihadis or an important cause of their presence.

Richard Gowan suggests there might be room for the US and Russia to reach a “dodgy”  grand bargain based on a trade-off between Ukraine and Syria: Moscow would temper its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine (and get some sanctions relief) in exchange for Washington backing off its demand for Bashar to step down. The trouble with this idea is that Washington has already backed off, because it gives priority to fighting the Islamic State. It might be more likely the other way around:  Moscow could back off support for Asad and temper support for separatism in Ukraine in return for Washington allowing some sanctions relief.

Like Russia, Iran props up Asad because it sees him as an ally against Sunni extremism, but Tehran has also needed Asad as a reliable link in the “resistance” chain that it has forged with Hizbollah and Hamas. There is no sign Iran is prepared to abandon Damascus. Even under sanctions and with lower oil prices, Tehran is providing ample men, weapons and financing. A nuclear deal this year would make that easier to sustain, as multilateral sanctions are at least partially lifted.

Freeze, intra-Syrian dialogue, grand bargain: we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. There may be something there that will work, but the odds are not good.

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