Saturday, July 06, 2013

Managing Syrian Conflict through Diplomacy

by Henelito A. Sevilla, Jr. 

The complexity of issues surrounding the Syrian civil war requires not only diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) but also through multilevel consultations of many important actors that have significantly contributed to either finding the solution or to worsening of the problem. What we have seen in Syrian civil war is not only opposing forces within the country but also outside forces which add to the intricacy of the problem. After months of conflict we found out that arms do not provide security nor it provide venue for more negotiation rather more bloodshed and killing of innocent civilians. This assumption has been reinforced by what happened in Libya. The proliferation of small arms into the hands of Libyan civilians does not only guarantee pity crimes after the overthrown of Khadafy but also the possibility of an increasing rate of organized crimes once small arms are channeled to politically motivated sub-groups such as the Jihadists.  In the case of Syria, small and high powered arms are already in the hands of the opposition forces and some of them are already handled by minors and some undisciplined Syrian who are vulnerable to killings, whereas, the United States, Russia and Iran are supplying arms and helicopters to either opposition or regimes forces.  Arguably this regrettable situation has contributed significantly to the killings of hundreds of civilians including the Syrian refugees fleeing to the borders of Turkey and Lebanon.  Arming the opposition to protect themselves from Bashar’s forces and providing attack helicopters and arms to the regime against the oppositions’ maybe the best option but it does not provide rationality to what really is the idea and intention on why Syrian went to streets to demonstrate. The fact that Bashar’s regime is unacceptable both from American and pro- American Arab regimes point of view, then the beginning of the civil protest was the perfect timing to start the gradual elimination of the US headaches in the Gulf. Syria ‘civil war’ is not just a civil war in its absolute terms. It is also an international geographically confined war with varied competing actors and interests not necessarily Syrians. It is a war about changing the political landscape of the region and finally it is a proxy war between the US, the Arabs and perhaps Turkey in one hand and Russia and Iran and perhaps China on the other hands.

What we have seen in the ground are the manifestations of different interests being carried out by the opposition forces and government forces who served as competing proxies of the two blocks being identified above. The competing interests of external actors have become apparent both at the UNSC, regional organization such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and through official pronouncements of the United States, Russia, China, Iran, GCC and Turkey. 

At the height of the UNSC debate on Syria, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have already shown disagreement on how to approach the civil crisis in that country. This was the first level where disagreement and conflicting interests of the UNSC members became apparent.  The United States led alliance with Gulf monarchies and European allies has called for an international pressure to end the “Syrian killing Machines” and protect the Syrian citizens from the Bashar’s “abhorrent brutality.”  All would be much happy to see the region without Bashar of Syria and the Ayatollahs in Iran.  As a political journalist Pepe Escobar put it,
“It’s an alliance between NATO basically led by Washington, London and Paris and the six Persian Gulf Monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Their agenda from the beginning, for months now, is regime change no matter what.”    On the other side, Russia and China have both disagreed with the US back proposal on the ground that the UNSC resolution might result to a coercive change of government not by the Syrian people but by the outsiders. Thus, the conflict in Syria has also manifested a “geopolitical struggles over the future of the Iranian regime, control of the Middle East oil and perpetuation  of the West preponderant influence in the region” an condition that Russia and China feel that they could be “booted out of the region.”

This level of disunity has greatly affected the way diplomacy is being conducted on the ground. Not less than the former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan acknowledged his disappointment on the superpowers’ disunity and lamented that “any further militarization of the conflict would be disastrous.”   Patrick Scale in his article argues that “the more the opposition resorts to arms, the more the regime will feel justified in crushing it.”  The six-point proposal that Annan negotiated had a backed from the UNSC and the Arab League but was opposed by Russia and China. The Six-point proposal  called for the Bashar’s government to ‘withdraw the use of heavy weapons and deploy troops to populated areas and for the opposition fighters to disarm. It also leads down the mechanics for political transition once Assad is removed from power.’

The second level of disunity can be seen from the Gulf regional actors themselves. The members of the Arab League do not want Iran to be part of the consultation and in the making of the framework for solution in Syria. The denial of Arab Gulf states on the Iranian participation in negotiation process would not only result to a half -cooked resolution but would also trigger the Iranian Islamic regime to participate in non-transparent operations in Syria. The Western Countries in the United Nations have accused Iran as the ‘central party to illicit arms transfers’  to Syria and Hezbollah using the Syrian border. Finally, Iran must have a greater role considering its influence on Syria as Alex Vatanka article argues that since from the beginning, Iran’s relations with Syria is “a marriage of convenience” . Iran being a regional power must be acknowledged by the Arab Gulf States instead of just ignoring it as irrelevant actor.

The third level of disunity comes from completing political interests of the Syrian opposition groups. According to Fawaz Gerges an Expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, that there are more than 100 armed Syrian groups. These groups are visible both inside and outside Syria. They can be divided into categories such as Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, moderate Islamist, nationalist, secularist, leftists.  In an article written by Stephen Lendman of The New York City Independent Media Center,  opposition groups in Syria can be divided into nine major groups: 1) The Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest opposition group that ‘favors a violent ousting of Assad’; 2) National Coordination Bureau for the Forces of Democratic Change (NCB), which advocate a “democratic governance”; 3)  Syrian Democratic Platform, an ideologically formed group; 4) Building the Syrian State (BSS), that  discourage ‘armed struggle’; 50  National Change Current (NCC), a group that support the SNC; 6) The ‘loyal opposition’, that supports Assad; 7) ) Syrian Sunni Islamism, the strongest group that includes the Islamic Brotherhood; 8) the Kurdish Opposition; and 9) The independent Dissidents.
These opposition groups are united in replacing the Bashar’s regime, but their ‘approaches are different’.   Apart from these Syria comprised various groups each would like to have greater share in the Transition period in Syria.

Finally, Turkey is also playing a very crucial role especially in the terms of Syrian refugee issues. There had been disagreements within the UNSC on whether Turkish request to put a “buffer zone “inside Syria was practical or not. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has announced in August 2012 that his country would not accept more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into Turkish soil and called for the establishment of the buffer zone.  The United States and its allies shown no interest on it and as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius commented that establishing a buffer zone is a “complicated” issue since it would require a resolution from the United Nations to established a “no-fly zone” in the area, given Russian and Chinese “reluctance” to remove Assad.   Assad also dismisses the idea of a buffer zone saying that it is “unrealistic.”

Different levels of disagreement both inside the country and abroad have all made negotiation a difficult task to achieve, a condition that led to the resignation of Annan as a chief negotiator citing disagreements among the members of the UNSC. A former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi replaced Annan and has dubbed his work as “impossible mission.”  But given that the crisis in Syria has already erupted to become a proxy war, there is no other way as of the present yet on how to diffuse the issue than diplomacy. It would mean that the interest of the Libyan nation must be given a top priority before any other political interests, although finding a common ground in the case of Syria is a difficult mission that the UNSC permanent members could achieved given the propensity of their regional interests. 

V-Conclusion

What is happening now in Syria is a continuation of a political and geostrategic battle on one hand between the permanent members of the UNSC vis –a- vis their regional interests and between the Basher’s regime against the fragmented government opposition groups on the other hand.  It is also a battle for Iran to maintain its ally in Syria and preserve its status as a regional power. In addition, it is an opportunity for Turkey to project itself as a regional power in the region and reasserts its role as a hybrid link between the Middle East and the West.  Each international and regional state-actors involved in Syria have played a dangerous game that would transform the political landscape of the Middle East region to an unknown direction. Each state guided by their strategic interests would love to see their share of influence in future of the Middle East. Instead of focusing on issues such as providing relief goods to Syrian civilian casualties and refugees, many efforts were focused on political and geostrategic concerns. Within this concern, nothing could be a best alternative to diplomacy. Even in the absence of development after many months of conflict, the world, especially contending powers should not overruled diplomacy and negotiation in favor of political and strategic interests of some actors involved. Giving signals to other states to sell arms to either parties in conflict may not only encourage the prolongation of the conflict and loss of lives and properties but may also demeaning our ethical and moral responsibilities not just as members of the international community but most especially as members of human race.

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*Henelito A. Sevilla, Jr is an Assistant Professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines, Diliman. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Tehran, a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Shahid Behesti, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran and Bachelor of Science in International Relations at the King Faisal Center for Islamic, Arabic and Asian Studies, Mindanao State University, Marawi City, Philippines.

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