In recent months there has been much talk of “game-changers” in Syria’s long-running war. Since August it has been the massive exodus of Syrian civilians to Europe, and the hundreds of family catastrophes as refugees drown in rickety boats or suffocate in locked trucks. Suddenly the war came home to the European public who clamoured for a decent response from their governments and demanded action to end the killing in Syria which made so many families want to escape.
At the end of September the game-changer was said to be Russia’s decision to start bombing in support of Bashar al-Assad, a move which must have been planned for several months, though it took the rest of the world by surprise. Would this dramatically alter the battle-lines on the ground in Syria, and give a boost to the Syrian army?
At the end of October came another new development. A meeting of foreign ministers in Vienna for the first time brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to the same table for talks on the Syrian crisis. Was it really a breakthrough to have Iran, one of Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, sitting down with Saudi Arabia, one of the main financiers and arms suppliers of the anti-Assad jihadi forces? Could their encounter even have regional implications by reducing the mutual demonisation of Sunnis and Shias which has been escalating destructively for a decade around the Persian Gulf as well as in Iraq and Syria?
At a lesser level we have also seen growing doubts in Western countries about the effectiveness of the US-led bombing campaign. In Canada voters elected the Liberal Party into government on a manifesto which included pulling Canadian aircraft out of the coalition. In Britain the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, though dominated by members of David Cameron’s Conservative party, rejected the Prime Minister’s wish to join the bombing of Syria, saying it was more important to look for a political solution.
Wishful thinking has long been in plentiful supply in the Syria crisis. Indeed the worse the human catastrophe gets, the more wishful does the thinking become. But the reality is that there have been no game-changers and Syria is still a stalemate, however much the outside players hope it were otherwise.
Take the Russian bombing. Like their counterparts in the Pentagon when it comes to proclaiming the results of US air strikes, Moscow’s military spokespeople boasted of success for the first month of the Russian air campaign. They were backed up by glowing reports from embedded Russian TV crews. Yet none of this alleged military progress is borne out by the latest aerial maps produced by the Palantir company and made available by the Carter Centre in Atlanta. They show the Syrian army has gained no more than 50 square kilometres in an area south of Aleppo, while in Homs there has been no change in the front lines. In Hama, Idlib and Lattakia where the bulk of the Russian bombing has been concentrated, initial Syrian ground offensives were soon neutralised after the armed opposition received increased supplies of TOW anti-tank guided missiles from their foreign suppliers. In some areas ISIS has even advanced.
Russian officials may argue, just as Pentagon spokespeople do in favour of the much longer US bombing campaign, that results cannot be expected overnight. It takes a long time to degrade the enemy, and we should be patient. The Russians can also argue that they at least have allied “boots-on-the-ground” in the shape of the Syrian army, and that eventually a combination of bombing and ground offensives will make a difference. It can also be claimed that, although the Syrian army has not yet gained much ground, it has stopped losing it thanks to the Russian bombing. If one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin intervened was fear that Assad would collapse militarily, initially by losing Aleppo and perhaps even Damascus, then standing firm has to be counted as success.
The “boots-on-the-ground” argument is certainly powerful. In September I spent a week with the Kurds in northern Syria. With the help of US airstrikes their militias, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), managed to drive ISIS out of Kobane on the Turkish border in January this year, and out of Tal Abyad, another border town, in July. They also resisted ISIS counter-attacks on Hasakah and Ayn Issa in the summer. These were important victories.
But, however successful they are in territory that is predominantly populated by Kurds, the YPG cannot expect to lead an offensive to take Raqqa, the ISIS capital, which is only eighty kilometres from their front lines. It has to be done by Syrian Arabs. So it was no surprise when Saleh Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, told me he would like the Russians and Americans to co-ordinate their air strikes in support of the Syrian army if it were to try to re-take Palmyra, which was lost in May this year, and then move on to Raqqa.
His only caveat was that this should not be done exclusively to support Assad, since he backs the plan, originally agreed at Geneva in July 2012, for a transition to a government of national unity. Saleh Muslim has no doubt that the immediate threat comes from ISIS, and that foreign governments need to give priority to defeating ISIS in defining their objectives in Syria. Asked if the Assad regime was close to being toppled by ISIS, he told me: “If it collapses because of the Salafis [i.e., ISIS], it would be a disaster for everyone. If it collapses by agreement with other forces, it would be all right.”
This leads on to the diplomacy in Vienna. It sounds optimistic in that all powers agreed to revive the political talks between Syrians, led by the UN and aimed to bring about “non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections”. But according to diplomatic sources, the Saudis continued to insist that there must be a clear date for Assad to leave power and that Iranian forces must leave Syria at the start of any political process. The Russians and Iranians say that Assad’s future has to depend on elections, in which he could be a candidate. So the gap remains as wide as it always has been.
In any case, are the governments which met in Austria really willing to use their political leverage to win concessions from those they back? Did Putin, for example, extract a quid pro quo from Assad in return for coming to his aid with Russian air power? In the published part of his remarks to Assad in Moscow last month the Russian president spoke of the need for reform and an inclusive political process “that involves all political forces, ethnic, and religious groups”. Were those statements backed by private warnings that Russian aid will be limited in time and is conditional on Assad making serious overtures to his opponents about transferring power to a transitional body, as envisaged in the Geneva communique of 2012, or were Putin’s remarks just a repetition of Assad’s own sequencing, that is, first defeat the terrorists and only after that is done can some sort of political reform be contemplated?
A major difficulty is that most of Assad’s armed opponents are jihadis who have no wish to compromise on the lines of the Vienna meeting’s formula, or indeed on any other non-sectarian basis. They view Assad’s Alawite community as Islamic heretics who have to be overthrown by force or killed. The “moderate opposition” which the Americans support and whose leaders could subscribe to the Vienna formula are minor, if not insignificant, players on the battlefield. A ceasefire between them and the Syrian army would be a useful step forward, but it would only affect a small geographical area.
The big problem is the strength of the jihadis. Could the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks be persuaded to stop their support for them, given that they will never compromise? Would an arms embargo on the jihadis be effective? The very act of raising these difficult questions shows how intractable the Syrian crisis has become.