Major hurdles still block negotiated solution

Friday 14/08/2015
Flurry of diplomatic activities

PARIS - For the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activities led by Russia and Iran to find a so­lution to the raging Syrian war but the success of such efforts will depend partly on whether Syr­ian President Bashar Assad will ac­cept a real power-sharing arrange­ment that could keep him — for a while — in power in Damascus, say observers of the secretive Syrian scene.
Having recently publicly acknowl­edged that a shortage of military personnel is compelling him to fo­cus on essential areas, Assad could welcome — maybe under pressure from his own Alawite clan and from his Russian and Iranian backers — an agreement that would help him con­solidate his grip on these areas.
The Syrian regime controls about 35% of the country’s territory. Regime-held areas — dubbed the “Useful Syria” because they consist of significant economic or strategic urban centres, axes of communi­cation and natural resources rich spots — include roughly the coastal front on the Mediterranean with the mainly Alawite province of Latakia, central Syria with the cities of Homs and Hama, one-third of Aleppo, Da­mascus and areas in southern Syria, including the Sweida Druze minor­ity stronghold.
The regime has lost to rival Sunni rebel groups, led by the Islamic State (ISIS) and by al-Qaeda affiliated al- Nusra Front, the Idlib and Deir ez- Zor northern and eastern provinces, with the exception of Deir ez-Zor airport, and a few positions in the Kurdish-held Hasakah province. It also lost the ancient city of Palmyra, the control of parts of the Damascus outskirts and large sections of Qu­neitra and Deraa in the south.
With the exception of Lebanon, the regime no longer controls its borders, whether with Turkey, Iraq or Jordan. Its forces in July launched a still-ongoing offensive in the Qalamoun area near Lebanon to seize the Zabadani hilly resort. Con­trolling this area would allow the As­sad regime to tighten its grip on the borders with Lebanon deemed vital as it ensures the flow of men and weaponry belonging to the pro-Ira­nian Hezbollah militia, allied with the Syrian regime.
The regime is also under pressure in the western part of the country, in areas overlooking its mainly Ala­wite stronghold in the Latakia gov­ernorate. It has lost positions in the Sahl el-Ghab plain which borders this area. It, however, retains con­trol of the nearby Jibal al Sahiliyyah, a chain of coastal mountains, which is — for the ruling Assad clan — an absolute red line as it commands ac­cess to Alawite country. Particularly important is the village of Jourine, which hosts the Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah military command.
Time is playing against the Syrian regime, say insiders in Syria, mainly because of the attrition of the Syrian Army. This is why Iran, which has been backing Assad with money, weaponry, military advisers, com­manders and personnel, is trying to revive a four-step peace plan.
The plan advocates a ceasefire, setting up a “national unity govern­ment”, rewriting Syria’s constitu­tion to include the country’s main ethnic groups and having national elections under international super­vision. The plan is to be presented soon to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Russia is also making ef­forts to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met to that effect with his US and Saudi counterparts in Qatar. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir went to Moscow for more talks on the fight against ISIS. The National Coalition, the main Syrian exiled opposition group that advo­cates a civil state, has also accepted an invitation to visit Moscow.
Syrian officials have been part of this recent flurry of diplomatic meetings. Walid al-Moualem, the Syrian foreign minister, visited Oman on a first such visit to a Gulf country in four years, while Ali Mamlouk, a close security adviser to Assad, met in Riyadh with Saudi De­fence Minister Mohammad bin Sal­man bin Abdulaziz. This is a first as Sunni Saudi Arabia has been work­ing tirelessly to overthrow Assad and his ruling Alawite minority sect backed by Shia Iran.
The deal on Iran’s nuclear pro­gramme raised hopes in the United States that Tehran might play a con­structive role in Syria and Iraq, two countries where the Iranians wield decisive influence.
But the United States seems more concerned about defeating ISIS than toppling Assad. US President Barack Obama said recently Iran and Russia are worried about a potential col­lapse of the Syrian regime and this is paving the way “for more serious discussions on Syria”.
In any case, a power-sharing ar­rangement between Assad and re­bels willing to sit with him could produce a larger coalition of Syrian troops on the ground to fight ISIS, which controls large parts of Syrian territory and neighbouring Iraq.
Syrian sources say the Russians recently assured their Damascus protégés that come late September, after US approval of the Iranian nu­clear deal, there will be much activ­ity regarding the four-year Syrian conflict.
It may be so but nobody, whether in Moscow or Washington, is down­playing the difficulty of overcoming the major hurdles facing an agree­ment in Syria, starting with setting up a representative transitional gov­ernment and the ultimate fate of As­sad himself.