Major hurdles still block negotiated solution
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.