ANALYSIS - Syria: Is political solution viable 10 years into the war?
A political solution is unlikely to include Assad as the damage inflicted so far because of him appears to be irreparable
The author is the acting president of the International Hoca Ahmet Yesevi Turkish-Kazakh University
The war in Syria, which has been continuing for more than ten years, has now reached a point of “consolidation” and the armed conflict has lost momentum. Reports paint a painful picture in which over half a million people have lost their lives, tens of thousands have become permanently disabled, and nearly half of the country’s 22 million people have become refugees inside and outside the country. We know that 25% of Syria’s population has fled the country, while another 25% has been forced to relocate within the country. In particular, opposition supporters among the Sunni Arabs, who make up the majority in the country, Turkmens and a portion of the Kurds, as well as various religious minorities and sects, have left the country. In other words, the regime has gotten rid of opposition groups and carried out demographic cleansing. The total cost of the devastation wrought so far is estimated to be at least $100 billion, with most important commercial and industrial cities left in ruins.
Furthermore, the Assad regime, which is effectively a vassal of Russia and Iran, controls the cities of Latakia, Tartus, and Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast, accessible via the M5 Highway from Aleppo, as well as the country’s main artery, the M4 Highway, which connects major cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Dera’a. The US-backed PYD/YPG forces dominate the east of the Euphrates river, while Turkish-backed opposition groups control northern Syria.
The Geneva, Astana, and constitutional peace talks are expected to assist in the development of a political settlement. But we can’t help but wonder if this picture could potentially lead to a long-term political solution. The most straightforward way to address this question is to analyze the current positions of the aforementioned groups and countries that have a bearing on the Syrian problem.
Russia, the most influential and powerful state involved in the Syrian crisis, aims at perpetuating the weak Assad regime, since it is already dependent on Russia, and taking the lion’s share of any benefits that could accrue from Syrian territory. Apart from possible gains, the Russian Federation is quite unconcerned about what will become of Syria’s economy and its people during this process. The Iranian regime follows a strategy similar to Russia’s. Iran merely wishes for the continuation of the Assad regime and of its influence, which extends to Lebanon over Iraq and Syria. Iran, like Russia, is completely unconcerned about the Syrian people’s struggle and plight.
Despite all of the humiliation, the Assad regime, which has been an Iranian and particularly Russian vassal and has lost half of its population and territory, is determined to retain control of the west of the Euphrates. Indeed, if possible, with the help of its foreign patrons, the regime plans to capture more territory, both in the north and east. On the other hand, it does not want the opposition to ever return to Syrian soil. Assad is also unconcerned about the plight of the Syrian people under his rule.
Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the US is attempting to create a mini-PKK state east of the Euphrates. The US aims to establish a secular PKK state that is fully dependent on the US, in the midst of a Turkish, Arab and Persian ethnic pool in the Middle East, and merge it with the regional administration in Iraq. It was initially planned to also reach the Mediterranean Sea via the so-called “cantons” established in the north, but when Turkey’s cross-border operations prevented that from happening, they were forced to reposition the PKK/PYD all the way south to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, where Sunni Arabs are the majority. In consequence, 30% of the land has been captured with the still-US-backed terrorist PKK, despite the fact that Kurdish people constituted only 10% of the Syrian population prior to the war. Thus, the US not only intends to establish a secular structure that would be allies with Israel, but also “discipline” Turkey, Iran and the Arab states whenever it deems “necessary”. The PKK/PYD, on the other hand, is gauging the possibility of establishing a state in the region with the support of the US, or at the very least settling for an autonomous area in case a state is not in the cards.
Turkey, which, after Russia, plays the most significant role in the Syrian crisis, takes the most ideal stance, which is also the most difficult one to execute. Turkey wants the end of the Assad family’s regime, the transition of power to whoever wins the free elections to be held in Syria after the refugees have returned, and, finally, a unitary Syria. The opposition’s stance is also very similar to Turkey’s. They want Assad gone and democratic elections to be held, as well as a unitary state.
Israel would be overjoyed to see a weak Assad remaining in power and a Kurdish state established east of the Euphrates. Israel, like the US, also supports such a structure against Turkey, Arab countries, and Iran. With Russia turning a blind eye, Israel occasionally bombs and destroys Iranian targets when its militias pose a threat.
In a nutshell, just as Syria has been effectively divided into three parts, so have the political negotiations and the countries that are parts of (or parties to) a likely solution. The Assad regime, Russia, and Iran are on one side; the US, Israel, and the PKK/PYD are on the other; and Turkey and the Syrian opposition are on the third.
Again, we wonder if there is a viable solution that involves Assad and to which parties and states other than Turkey and the opposition would consent.
Will the opposition, as well as the 11 million people who have fled (or relocated within) Syria, be able to return as long as Assad remains in power? Would the Assad regime not prosecute these people if they ever returned? Would the belongings and properties of these people (if any remain) be returned to them? Would the regime be able to make for the $100 billion in damage and destruction, and revive the country’s economy? Would Russia and Iran be able to compensate for these economic losses as well? Will Russia and Iran agree to a scenario without Assad?
If these questions cannot be answered affirmatively, it will be very difficult to argue that any solution that includes Assad would be reasonable and probable. And, on the other hand, will the PKK/PYD, which has gained autonomy under US auspices and seeks to create a new state, settle, with their patron, the US, for a union that, even if autonomous, will once again be under the Assad regime?
Given that Turkey and the opposition are dead set against the Assad regime, could a political solution be found at the negotiation table where three groups of conflicting interests assemble, unless these groups do not change their positions? In addition, if it is true that the big cities west of the Euphrates depend on those in the east for food, water and electricity, and that those in the east must sell these products to the big cities in the west in order to make money (which is actually the case), could it be that the US and Russia have already reached an unofficial agreement along the lines of “the western side is yours, and the eastern is mine”?
With the examples of Iraq and Lebanon in mind; is it possible, as Turkey wishes, to create a united Syria with a constitution based on Syrian citizenship rather than sectarianism and ethnic discrimination, which is the ideal, and really the only viable, path to a unitary Syria?
In fact, if we cannot say yes to these questions, we will have to assume that, unless the groups in question overhaul their views, the best-case scenario would be an Iraqi-style government and constitution, which, as everybody knows, has not exactly had a stellar track record so far.
As usual, we will end our article with a final remark:
“A broken vase can’t be repaired.”
Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay
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