Monday, 27 January 2014

Syrian War Update: Peace talks, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda

As peace talks between interested world powers and the various Syrian belligerents play out in Switzerland, the fighting continues to rage in the Middle Eastern country. Representatives of the Syrian government and rebel forces opened in Montreux on January 25 the first face-to-face talks between the two sides since Syria's civil war began nearly three years ago. The earliest stages of the talks are focusing on a possible short ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into besieged rebel-held areas in the city of Homs. Negotiations will also focus on the release of prisoners of conscience, such as women and children.

The two broad sides of the Syrian civil war also met again January 26 to discuss aid and prisoner releases. United Nations aid agencies have reported being stopped from delivering aid by Syrian authorities, despite Damascus' assurance that it would allow the distributions.

Russia, one of the sponsors of the talks, has offered official support for a proposed alliance between Bashar al Assad's regime and moderate opposition forces against Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said have no place in the talks.

The talks were originally scheduled to begin January 24 but nearly collapsed amid fierce recriminations, forcing the delay. Iran was invited to the discussion by the UN, which angered the Syrian opposition. The United States requested that the Iran invitation be rescinded, which it duly was, before the negotiations began. Intervening as a veto power to disinvite Iran shows just how difficult and tentative the nascent rapprochement between the US and Iran will be in the future. A mix of backwards steps and positive forward progress can be expected as the two powers weigh each other’s true motivations and goals.

Syria’s divided opposition groups will make this negotiation process a long and arduous one. The Syrian National Coalition, the main exile opposition group, has threatened to eschew the talks when news was released that Iran was invited. Syria’s internal opposition party, the National Coordination Body (NCB) announced it will not attend the talks either. The attending rebel groups have also made it clear that they expect representatives of the al Assad regime to not arrive with a negotiating stance of potentially remaining in power.

The opposition expect the regime to only be talking about a peaceful transition, however, this is simply not in the interest of the al Assad ruling party. Mr al Assad is under no threat to negotiate away his control over the country. This clash of mindsets here will make it extremely difficult to negotiate over the next few months.

Ultimately, the negotiations in Montreux are unlikely to find a conclusion to the three-year conflict in Syria. The country is as divided as it ever was, and is now little more than a geographical representation than a true nation-state. The various factions of the Syrian opposition are linked only by their common goal of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad from power.

Any ancillary goals they may wish for, down to which faction or ethnic group should replace the regime, are far from reconciled or mutual. The only force in the country at the beginning of 2014 with even a semblance of connectivity and coherency remains the Alawite regime (and maybe the al Qaeda groups). Mr al Assad still calls himself the President of Syria, but a more accurate description would see him as simply the strongest warlord in a country of warlords. For a large part, this is exactly why the fighting has dragged on so long.

Discussing the conflict in Switzerland is therefore more of a theatrical display by Western powers - and the United Nations - to show the world it is doing something to end the killing. The United States has been rebuffed multiple times in its efforts to lead a coalition of military force to remove the Syrian regime from power. The only success Washington has achieved is in formulating a program to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons.

However, extracting Syria’s chemical weapons will not be an overnight job, and could take years or decades. Given the constant ebb and flow of the civil war, much of this weaponry is unlikely to be found and could leave the country via the many smuggling routes into the greater Middle East. To achieve this goal, Russia and the United States will continue to apply pressure to the Syrian regime and opposition groups to maintain the cease-fire while negotiators try to find some common ground for a political solution and take possession of the chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, the civil war front continues to burn.

2013 was a complex and bloody year for the civil war, with territory captured and recaptured numerous times by both sides. Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces still control the all-important strategic corridor connecting the ethnic Alawite core on the Mediterranean coast to Damascus. And contest for control over the Homs-Hama-Aleppo highway corridor is presently weighted to loyalist forces. Both regions are critical for the regime because of the high concentrations of civilian supporters living there, as well as Mr al Assad’s ethnic group of the Alawites.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant-political group, also threw their considerable weight behind the regime forces in 2013, even while sustaining relatively heavy losses. Their goal has been to maintain the connection between their stronghold in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and Damascus to continue trade and free travel with the al Assad regime.

Although the fighting in Syria has required large amounts of men and materiel from the militant group, it has managed to ensure this connection and will likely keep this route open for the foreseeable future. However, on its home front in Lebanon, various Sunni Salafist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have begun targeting Hezbollah strongholds in an attempt to disrupt and distract the group from fighting in Syria.

Hezbollah’s political standing in Lebanon has been negatively affected by these attacks, which have ranged from crude to complex vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and mobile armed attacks, but the group should regain influence over Lebanon’s political process as it moves to counter the Sunni jihadist threat in Lebanon.

With expert military assistance from Hezbollah, continued arms and personnel deliveries from Iran, a divided and fratricidal opposition, a disinterested and distracted West, and with Turkey trying to look the other way, the commanding position of the Alawite regime is unlikely to change this year.

Aside from a drastic and strategically devastating military loss or the removal of support from one or all of Mr al Assad’s allies, the Syrian President can prosecute the civil war in whichever way he pleases. He has already shown to the international community on numerous occasions that his forces can target rebel positions at will and with any type of conventional weaponry the regime possesses in their arsenal.

During the talks in Switzerland, there will be an agreed cease-fire in Syria. Mr al Assad will use the time at the Montreux conference to bolster his forces in the north around Aleppo in preparation for the spring season. He will also look to reposition his limited resources along the corridor from Damascus to Aleppo where the bulk of the fighting in 2014 is likely to occur once again.

South of Damascus, near the borders of Jordan and Israel, will also see more fighting this year and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) will be monitoring this region closely. The Golan Heights demilitarised zone has already seen the exchange of artillery and rifle fire between Syrian and IDF troops. Israel will continue to plan for interdiction strikes into Syria using fighter aircraft if it receives intelligence about weapons or other threats moving into Lebanon or elsewhere.

The so-called “Geneva II” talks being held in Switzerland are certainly a significant step for the Syrian peace process. Many commentators have applauded the resolution of both sides to sit down and attempt to find common ground. Yet the assumption that there are only two sides to the conflict simplifies the fighting and disregards the various rebel factions holding mutually exclusive goals for transition. No group sitting at the table can rightfully claim to represent the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime and this will severely limit the chances for a negotiated end to the fighting.

Although the inclusion of representatives from the Syrian regime at the talks is a sign that they also wish to talk, it by no means indicates Mr al Assad is ready to give up power. The civil war has raged for more than three years with no end in sight. Today Mr al Assad is under no pressure to negotiate his way out of control and this fact will not change in 2014. As the discussions continue to freeze in Europe, the various belligerents in Syria gear up for another fighting season as the weather in Syria begins to turn warmer.

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