Many have argued that the collapse in mid-February of the Geneva II talks aimed at bringing an end to the Syrian conflict left the country hostage to an enduring military stalemate. But as the conflict grinds on into its fourth year, the stalemate is anything but static.
The prospects that a viable new diplomatic framework will emerge to calm the situation are now more remote than ever. It seems equally remote that the U.S. policy on Syria will become more assertive. In the absence of those two key external factors, the course and direction of the conflict through the rest of 2014 and well into next year will be determined by incremental changes in the military, political, and economic spheres inside Syria.
Those changes are unfolding in contradictory ways. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition)—ostensibly the primary political representative of the opposition—is in terminal crisis, saved only by a patina of recognition by the Friends of Syria group of countries, whose principal members privately acknowledge the coalition’s increasing irrelevance to developments on the ground. And the armed rebellion, which has not lost its potency, is nonetheless waning even as it is consolidating.
In fact, on balance, the cumulative effect of trends since fall 2013 favors the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime remains far from achieving an all-out military victory, and it may never do so. The gains it is making are slow, costly, and often tentative, vulnerable to reversal. But if present trends continue—and there really is little to suggest they will not—then the regime will be in a dominant position and in effective control of a critical mass of the country by the end of 2015, if not sooner.
The Friends of Syria do not maintain diplomatic relations with Assad’s Damascus and, despite direct contacts with it by half a dozen Western intelligence agencies in early 2014, are unlikely to restore those channels. But at some point, the group is bound to acknowledge that the regime’s survival is no longer in question and adjust policies accordingly. Ironically, that survival may be the only thing capable of paving the way for serious dissent to openly emerge from the regime’s own social constituencies and institutional base.
To date, the National Coalition has failed signally to generate a critical political opening of this kind. And it becomes more unlikely with each passing day that the coalition will be able to seize the opportunity presented by such an opening should it arise and draw a critical mass of rebel groups behind it. But in that vacuum, a more effective kind of Syrian opposition may just arise.
The Limits of Military Support for Syria’s Rebels
With Russian and Iranian support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently undiminished and likely to continue at current high levels for the foreseeable future, the only thing that could appreciably slow, alter, or even reverse trends inside Syria is a radical shift in what the Friends of Syria are willing to do to support the Syrian opposition and improve prospects for a decisive political transition. But the principal members of the Friends of Syria—the eleven countries known as the “core group”—are not going to do significantly more than they have already done to alter the current trajectory of developments on the ground. The United States and its main European partners, for instance, will not take such action, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates cannot.
The United States, which has reportedly increased funding and other assistance to the Syrian rebels since the failure of the second round of Geneva talks, at most seeks only enough leverage to compel the Assad regime to negotiate seriously. But the scope and scale of U.S. military assistance are insufficient to achieve even that modest aim. Between 2012 and the end of March 2014, this included nonlethal items such as ambulances and trucks, communications equipment, mattresses and blankets, packaged meals, and medical kits worth some $26 million, while an estimated 1,000-3,000 rebel fighters went through a train-and-equip program run by the Central Intelligence Agency in Jordan. Even if the total amount of $80 million worth of nonlethal military assistance committed since 2012 were now to be disbursed, it would not tilt the balance on the ground.
But Washington has maintained its adamant opposition to supplying the Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles—and continues to prevent others in the Friends of Syria core group from doing so—limiting the opposition’s ability to slow or blunt regime advances. Indeed, despite covertly facilitating some Gulf-funded arms shipments to the rebels, the United States remains reluctant to provide them with lethal military assistance directly, as do other Western allies such as the United Kingdom, which reiterated its opposition to arming the rebels in late March and insisted on the return of all parties to the negotiating table.
Last August, when chemical weapons were used in a district near Damascus, the United States threatened a U.S. and allied military strike against the Assad regime. But a political solution was found, and Damascus agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. While regime foot-dragging over the dismantling of its chemical weapons capability might have justified renewing the threat of a military strike, that process is moving forward. Despite delays, 54 percent of the lethal agents stockpile had been eliminated by early April, according to the head of the joint mission of the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who also confirmed that an additional 40 percent was already packed for removal abroad or destruction inside the country.
It remains highly unlikely that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama will deem an ongoing dispute over the destruction of Syria’s twelve chemical weapons production sites—which the regime is resisting—sufficient cause to launch punitive strikes. Obama's stated reservations about placing American troops on the ground are irrelevant, as this is not genuinely what is at stake, but his reluctance to risk the need for additional, follow-on strikes in an escalating spiral will continue to deter direct U.S. action.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia, which last June assumed leadership of the axis of Arab states supporting Syria’s armed rebellion, still appears to seek a more decisive shift in the military balance than Washington, sufficient to impose terms on Assad or depose him outright. But it lacks the means to deliver this without the United States, which holds the key to whether Jordan might act as a springboard for Saudi-backed rebel offensives. Washington is unlikely to exert the necessary leverage. Indeed, the Jordanian government’s official spokesperson, minister Mohammad al-Moumani, stated emphatically on April 6 that “we have not, and will not, allow the passage of any weapons or fighters into Syrian territory.” The Saudi-U.S. relationship is less than solid, and the scope for misunderstanding and divergence was underlined when an unnamed senior Saudi source claimed Obama had lifted the U.S. embargo on supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian rebels during his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, but this was immediately denied by the U.S. Department of State.
Saudi policy toward Syria is highly unlikely to depart from its core aims, but it may lose coherence. This is partly because responsibility for the Syria file changed hands yet again in February 2014, passing from the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had assumed it only last July, to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then reportedly passing back to Prince Bandar yet again following his return from medical treatment in the U.S. in April. More importantly, the looming transition in Saudi leadership that was signaled by the appointment of a new deputy crown prince on March 27 may contribute to the uncertainty and opacity of the kingdom’s foreign policy making. Already highly personalized, decisionmaking may become further dispersed as multiple centers of princely power prepare to compete over the succession from King Abdullah.
The scope for empowered diplomacy of any kind to bring an end to the conflict will be equally circumscribed in the near future. In their joint summit statement of March 26, the United States and the European Union rightly reiterated that “the Geneva negotiation process is crucial for achieving a genuine political transition in Syria.” But in reality the Geneva framework is dead.
If and when a diplomatic deal on Syria becomes possible, it will bear little resemblance to the outline laid out in the joint communiqué of June 30, 2012—Geneva I. Instead, it will most likely embody a straightforward recognition of facts on the ground, which still favor the regime, or else not happen at all.
Nonetheless, since the collapse of the Geneva talks in February, some have responded by seeking to restart a diplomatic process. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reportedly still hope to coax the Syrian protagonists into a third round of formal talks, while a few Syrians and non-Syrians are engaged in behind-the-scenes track-II discussions. Others propose using the issue of humanitarian ceasefires—enabling access to aid—as a starting point for more substantive negotiations.
Still, there is no forward motion. That is in part because a diplomatic outcome to the Syrian conflict requires an agreed, collective approach to be credible, but regional and international developments are making this virtually impossible.
Open feuding erupted between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in February, and in parallel, Turkish-Saudi relations have soured. This, coupled with the likelihood of partial Turkish disengagement from Arab affairs and Turkey’s prospective normalization of relations with Israel, divides the Syrian opposition’s main regional supporters and undermines their ability to coordinate military and diplomatic positions in an evolving strategic landscape.
The sharp degeneration of U.S.-Russian relations over the Ukraine crisis to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War precludes reaching a minimum consensus on Syria between the two critically important powers. In this context, talk by some Friends of Syria diplomats of seeking a Chapter Seven resolution from the UN Security Council to allow mandatory sanctions and collective military action against the Assad regime was pious to the point of dishonesty.
More robust diplomacy was never going to happen. The ceiling for what the Western members of the Friends of Syria will do for the foreseeable future was set by Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 22, which focused international efforts on securing unhindered humanitarian aid access in Syria. But even this exceeds what the Friends of Syria are willing to implement. As if to underline this, the U.S. Senate and House foreign relations committees separately tabled resolutions in mid-March that focused almost entirely on implementing resolution 2139. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs additionally urged the administration and its allies “to formally withdraw their recognition of Bashar al-Assad’s regime as the rightful Government of Syria” and the UN Security Council “to suspend the Government of Syria’s rights and privileges of membership by the General Assembly.” But both resolutions are nonbinding, making them little more than gestures.
Meanwhile, donor fatigue has set in. The appeal the UN launched on December 16, 2013, for $6.54 billion for its Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan and Syria Regional Response Plan in 2014 elicited only $1.57 billion in pledges, including some $400 million earmarked for other agencies and projects. By the start of April 2014, the two UN plans had received only $1.06 billion—16 percent of the original appeal—leaving a shortfall of $5.48 billion. The UN secretary general and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic will continue in parallel to issue statements and periodic reports on the humanitarian situation and human rights violations in Syria, but without the means of translating these into meaningful consequences for the parties responsible, especially the Assad regime, they have become mere ritual.
The support of Russia and Iran has been vital to the Assad regime’s strategy of resisting meaningful negotiations and prioritizing survival over any other consideration. But neither Moscow nor Tehran is wedded to Assad, and according to credible inside sources even hardliners in Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s camp recognize that he cannot remain in power.
Still, under current conditions there is little prospect of the kind of compromise now envisaged by some who assume that Russia and Iran may be brought into alignment with the Friends of Syria in pursuit of a meaningful political transition. Neither power will dispense with Assad under duress, and certainly not so long as the Syrian opposition and its external backers are in retreat. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Amir Abdollahian reiterated this bluntly yet again on April 2, saying, “We aren’t seeking to have Bashar al-Assad remain president for life. But we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government.”
The grim truth is that for those determined to extract a diplomatic exit from the crisis under present conditions, Iran’s latest four-point peace plan is the only potentially feasible bid on the table. It calls for a general ceasefire, a national unity government composed of the regime and Syria’s “internal” opposition, the successive transfer of a wide but unspecified range of presidential powers to the government over several years, and general and presidential elections.
The Friends of Syria will not accept this formally as the basis for a peace agreement. But in private, the envoys of some of the group’s leading countries confide that the writing is on the wall. They now hope at best that a deal may somehow be reached that allows Assad to remain in office for another two years while transitional governing arrangements are put in place. The well-connected Syrian opposition news site Zaman Alwsl reported in mid-March, for example, that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had urged the head of the opposition’s provisional government, Ahmad Tomeh, to find “a half-way solution” that would allow Assad to remain present in the transitional phase, “even for a short period.”
But the time for this was a whole year ago, when Assad’s repeated references to the 2014 presidential election hinted at a readiness to make that the linchpin of a deal. Whatever his intentions then, he now clearly sees himself staying on for a third, seven-year term. It no longer matters if this will be managed through an unconvincing election or by a two-year extension of his current mandate, as some have suggested he may do, to be followed by an election once the regime is more clearly in control of the bulk of its territory and population. The insistence of the joint U.S.-EU statement that elections in Syria “should only take place within this framework [the Geneva Communiqué]” will soon be made irrelevant.
A New Kind of Opposition?
If an election is held and Assad is voted into office again, the regime will not have secured a significant or lasting victory even if, as some Western diplomats privately believe, he would win in a genuinely free contest and not just in a stage-managed poll. The regime will inevitably face new tensions and challenges as it stabilizes its situation and consolidates its military grip, as those who have fought for it make demands that were postponed at the height of the armed conflict.
This can only pit some of the regime’s core constituencies (including sections of the Alawi community that provided combat manpower and suffered horrendous casualties, the army more generally, and many in the state bureaucracy and Baath Party) against others (including members and cronies of the Assad family, and a new breed of pro-regime warlords). Their dissent is already palpable when it comes to depredations of the Syrian National Defense Force, the regime militia accused of extortion and looting even in loyalist areas, and of Assad family members, such as the president’s cousin Hilal (killed during the rebel offensive on Kassab in late March) and Hilal's son Suleiman, local strongmen who notoriously ran the coastal region as a fiefdom.
These kinds of protests and social demands from within Assad’s own ranks will pose a challenge that cannot be answered with brute force, unlike the challenge presented by the armed rebellion. But it will also be enormously difficult to defuse dissent through stepped-up government spending, given the need to gradually wind down the war economy and shift from fiscal policies geared toward survival back to public investment. This is not to mention the need to cover the costs of reconstruction in urban areas that are politically important for the regime, secure the repatriation of Syrian flight capital, attract businessmen through favorable policies and incentives, and, eventually, pay off a massive war debt.
It may be years before an opposition like this one, based partly on former regime loyalists, can cross the deep divide left by the sectarian legacy of the Syrian conflict. There is no assurance that it will emerge, nor of the form and direction it may take. Unfortunately, the National Coalition is no closer today than at any time past to being politically able or willing to offer engagement on terms that may be regarded as credible by regime supporters should the opportunity arise. The armed rebellion is undoubtedly generating political dissent within the regime’s social base by inflicting a high and continuing death toll and by threatening to bring the war to relatively safe regime areas. But this has failed previously to swing the balance in beleaguered Alawi neighborhoods of Damascus, Homs, and Hama, or even in heavily Sunni middle-class neighborhoods of the capital and Aleppo.
The democratic revolution remains a reality for which many Syrians continue to struggle. Yet, any new potential might not be able to materialize until the existing political opposition and armed rebellion have lost the battle. This is a melancholy perspective indeed. But the time when Assad might have been defeated by a truly inept opposition leadership and fragmented rebel movement has passed.