More countries are getting involved in the Syrian war as rumours suggest the four-year conflict may be inching towards a conclusion.
Various news agencies in Europe and the Middle East report that backroom talks between some rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al Assad may have converged on a way to transition the country to a new political structure and end the civil war.
But after years of near continuous fighting, the conflict is having only minimal effect on the international community. Presently, the only aspect of the war stirring global public attention is the more than 4 million refugees escaping the country. Rebel groups are also making important gains against regime positions in the north of the country near the ancient trading city Aleppo, while jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra press the regime in the centre of the country.
The regime may be receiving crucial support from Russia, but it is clear Damascus is under intense pressure. This morning a regime army garrison was forced to evacuate an airbase in Idlib. The garrison had defended the Abu al Juhur military airbase for two years. Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra led the assault ahead of other moderate rebel groups. Germany’s intelligence agency released information also this week that IS has used chemical weapons in Marea near Aleppo against members of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group. IS has also made significant strategic gains over the last few weeks against both regime-held territory and rebel strongholds, some of which have occurred inside central Damascus.
Also this week, the UK conducted its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack on British citizens fighting for militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The strike was reportedly conducted near the IS pseudo-capital Raqqah. The missile attack highlights the reach of Western governments in Syria, but also their overall lack of action to address either the IS militancy or to bring about a political solution to the civil war in Syria. Other foreign governments, such as France and Russia, are now filling the void in important ways.
In late August, reports emerged that Moscow may have found a way for the Syrian regime to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with rebel groups. The unconfirmed reports indicate both the regime and some rebels are involved in backroom talks with Russia and France, mediated by Oman. The core of the arrangement is that Mr al Assad will apparently remain in a leadership position during the possible transition.
The president could then cede his role to Syrian politician and diplomat Farouk al-Shara as the changeover progresses. The deal apparently keeps Mr al Assad in the new structure as a politically sterilised figurehead, an important consideration given the Alawite minority the president represents worries it will be persecuted should the Assad clan be side-lined.
Other reports suggest former brigade commander Manaf Tlass, of the Syrian Republican Guard, may step into the role of army chief of staff. Mr Tlass is a Sunni with close familial ties to the al Assad clan, defecting in 2012, and has spent most of the intervening time in France. He has been recorded travelling to Moscow on multiple occasions over the past few weeks. Although the transition rumours have not been confirmed, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters today he would accept retaining Mr al Assad in a nominal political position during any transition if it meant the end of the civil war.
“If there is a sensible plan for transition that involves [Mr al] Assad remaining in some way involved in the process for a period of time we will look at that, we will discuss it. We are not saying he must go on day one,” he says.
A spokesperson for British prime minister David Cameron says the UK still believes there is no “positive future for Syria if Mr al Assad is included.” Any political transition which isn’t accepted by most or all rebel groups is unlikely to be successful however, regardless of which country is mediating the talks.
After weeks of anecdotes suggesting Russian troops are in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry finally confirmed this morning that Russian military experts are operating in the country. Russian troop ships and amphibious landing craft have been spotted transiting through the Bosporus heading to the Mediterranean over the past few weeks. Many carried armoured vehicles and other supplies. Bulgaria and Greece also denied overflight rights to Russian cargo aircraft this week which were travelling in the same direction, much to Moscow’s chagrin.
It is not totally surprising Russia is increasing its support for the al Assad regime. The Syrian port of Tartus is currently leased to Moscow and is Russia’s access to the Mediterranean. During most of Syria’s civil war, the port has been used by Russian supply vessels to deliver weapons, materiel and other goods to the regime.
However, reports from Syria that a new airbase near Damascus may be being built by Russian troops, and that Russian forces are on the front lines with fighting with regime soldiers. If true, it indicates Moscow is increasing its involvement in the war even while the survival of the al Assad regime is far from certain. The regime has struggled to fill key positions in its military due to high levels of fatigue, low morale and increasing numbers of deserters from the Alawite ethnic core. This high attrition rate on Mr al Assad’s forces might be somewhat offset by Russian military personnel, although just how willing Moscow is to risk its troops in combat is largely unknown.
Along with the backroom transition talks, the inclusion of Russian forces in Syria place Moscow as one of the most influential central foreign powers in the country. This is in sharp contrast to the peripheral and non-committal US engagement in Syria, and its focus on Iraq as first priority.
Syria’s refugee emergency is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, but is largely over-emphasised in Western countries. The conflict has failed to maintain international attention since it began in 2011, despite total combat and civilian deaths tipping over 320,000 this year, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Refugees from the embattled country have now reached more than 4 million, putting Syria back in the world’s headlines.
Most Syrian refugees are moving to neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. For instance, 2.1 million are estimated currently to be in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Almost 1.9 million are have traveled to Turkey, while the remainder have fled to Europe and beyond. Germany suggested this week it could take up to 500,000 refugees each year, some of whom will come from Syria. Other European Union (EU) countries are facing pressure to accept more refugees, although a parallel debate about the potential negative repercussions of accepting more refugees will constrain how many people the EU can cope with.
New Zealand and Australia are also discussing increasing refugee intake quotas to accommodate more people from the Levant. John Key in response increased New Zealand’s quota by a 600 hundred extra people each year at a cost of $48 million. The low numbers of refugees travelling outside the Middle East suggest this particular crisis will likely dissipate in most Western countries soon.