Syria: new prospects for peace?

The last few days have brought a spate of articles about Syria, all noting that the Assad regime is under increasingly serious pressure:

The immediate reason for these articles is that rebel fighters have been making significant gains in the north (documented on a daily basis by EA WorldView). Of course there have been plenty of advances and retreats before, on all sides, during the four-year conflict but this time there is more unity of purpose among the rebel fighters and between their chief backers, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Guardian reports:

The opposition’s changing fortunes have followed a rapprochement between Turkey, which has been the main backer of the Islamist anti-Assad rebels, and Saudi Arabia, which had supported more mainstream rebel groups.

Riyadh had been deeply suspicious of Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which it saw as a subversive threat at home and a chief beneficiary of the Arab revolts, more broadly.
“That’s all changed now,” said a senior member of the Syrian opposition who has supplied weapons to various groups.

“They’ve put their differences aside. Saudi is not as concerned as it was by who among the rebel groups is winning, as long as it’s not [Isis]. They’ve convinced everyone involved in Syria that the real enemy is Iran.

“I would put the advances down to one word,” he said. “Tow”. Saudi-supplied Tow guided missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syrian armoury and have been widely used over the past two months, in northern and southern Syria.

As a result, the Assad regime is now "in a very difficult situation," the Washington Institute says:

"The scale and scope of the rebel campaign in Idlib and Hama pose a real challenge to its strategy and capabilities. The regime was unable to retake the provincial capital lost in March and now faces a serious threat to the core of its remaining military position in the area. 

"This challenge also comes amid other setbacks in Aleppo, Quneitra, and Deraa provinces, where regime offensives have either stalled or lost ground, sometimes even when its normally dependable allied forces were involved. The overall situation points to potentially failing military capability after four years of attrition warfare."

Writing for the Middle East Institute, Robert Ford – a former US ambassador to Syria – detects increased dissent within the regime:

"There are four secret police agencies that are the foundation of the regime’s power, and in mid-March the regime publicly announced that the heads of two of them had been fired. The removal of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Syrian Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh was unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh and Shehadeh fell out over the regime’s dependence on Iran ... 

"Their sacking follows the departure of Hafez Makhlouf, Assad’s first cousin who was the general security chief of the sensitive Damascus bureau and who left the country, reportedly to Russia or Belarus, last autumn. Makhlouf, Ghazaleh [who has since been reported dead], and Shehadeh all were members of the inner circle, and their departure within six months indicates significant internal discord in the regime, which had not been seen during the war’s first three and a half years."

Ford also sees "signs of dissent" in the regime's support base:

"After tens of thousands of casualties, there are hints that the relatively small Alawi community is tiring of the battle and wants out. The regime’s conscription drives in Latakia and Damascus have not met with public support. Instead, there are stories of families trying to get their sons out of Syria ... Meanwhile, the regime has attempted to mobilise Syrian Druze communities, but so far they appear more inclined to maintain neutrality despite the proximity of Islamic State elements."

The overall situation, the Washington Institute says, "points to potentially failing military capability after four years of attrition warfare":

"Even avoiding a major defeat in Idlib would not necessarily dispel the renewed sense of pending regime failure. Its forces are pressed on other fronts as well, even close to Damascus, and it does not have a 'masse d'maneuver' to deploy to key points in the war. What Damascus needs is more (and more reliable) forces, but it is unclear where they would come from. Its Hezbollah, Iraqi, and Iranian allies may be reluctant to keep paying an increasing cost for a perhaps failing investment. The regime also needs to reassess its military and political strategies."

Nicholas Blanford, in an article for the Christian Science Monitor,
says that although Iran is spending between $1 billion and $2 billion a month in Syria in cash handouts and military support (possibly more), it is unlikely to waver in backing Assad: "Iran has invested so heavily in the regime – to the exclusion of other parties in Syria – that Tehran has little choice but to double down on its embattled ally."

Presumably because of the pressures it is facing, the regime seems more willing than before to talk about peace, Robert Ford says: 

"The regime flatly refused to discuss political issues at the Geneva 2 conference in January-February 2014. By contrast, it sent a delegation to Moscow to discuss a political track in January and March 2015. The regime is more comfortable negotiating with tamer opposition elements in Moscow than with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in Geneva, but its willingness to accept any political talks is new."

Yesterday SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported plans for "low-key" talks to be held separately "with each of the main stakeholders" in Geneva next month. Quoting UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, SANA said:

"Major powers, along with regional and international players, have been invited to the peace talks. ISIS and the Nusra Front groups – which are classified as terrorist organisations – were not considered for participation, although some delegates present at the talks would be able to communicate with them."

With an eye on possible diplomatic processes, the International Crisis Group yesterday called on outside players "finally to identify which of their core demands they could reasonably achieve, instead of pursuing multiple, illusory goals": 

"If Syria and its external stakeholders are to escape more years of war, rising costs, further destruction of the nation’s torn social fabric and worsening trans-border radicalisation, a serious effort must be made, first and foremost, to define the parameters of an ultimate political solution. Both sides and their state backers will need to make significant concessions to address now inescapable realities: Bashar Assad cannot rule a post-war Syria; Iran’s influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated."

It went on to give a fairly detailed outline of what it sees as the way forward, based on "difficult reciprocal concessions". But with so many players involved, that would be long and complicated, and my gut feeling is that most of them are not yet ready to make peace.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 28 April 2015