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Chasing a mirage in Munich?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • February 18, 2016

    The Syrian imbroglio topped the agenda at the annual Munich Security Conference held from 12 to 14 February. The report prepared for the conference, attended by powers, major and minor, was appropriately titled Boundless Crises, Reckless Spoilers, and Helpless Guardians, particularly so in the context of the confusing and distressing developments relating to Syria.

    After eight hours of negotiations among the members of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced a deal on February 12 in the presence of UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura. The ISSG consists of the Arab League, China, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States. The deal provides for delivery of humanitarian aid and cessation of hostilities as early as possible.

    According to the joint statement, “the members of the ISSG will use their influence with all parties on the ground to work together, in coordination with the United Nations, to ensure that all parties allow immediate and sustained humanitarian access to reach all people in need, throughout Syria, particularly in all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, as called for in UNSCR 2254.” The Syrian government of Assad and the various rebels fighting it have for months denied access to food to the innocent civilians in areas held by their adversary in flagrant violation of international law. About a million Syrians are trapped in such areas. Unless there is a temporary cease-fire, the UN cannot send in the supplies. It is a matter of satisfaction to the friends of the Syrian people that following de Mistura’s talks in Damascus the trucks carrying supplies are likely to move soon.

    The other important part of the deal is cessation of hostilities. The ISSG “agreed that a nationwide cessation of hostilities must be urgently implemented, and should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations Security Council.” The reader might note the contradiction, as there cannot be a nationwide cessation if two of the major rebel groups are excluded. One may assume that the intention, or more accurately the vain hope, is to consolidate a cessation of hostilities among the Syrian government and the rebels excluding the two groups specifically mentioned and, later, to move against the two and finish them off. It may be noted that there was resistance from the rebels supported by Saudi Arabia, US, and their allies to agree to the use of the words “cease-fire” as they wanted more clarity on Assad’s role during the transition before they agree to any cease-fire.

    Let us look at the post-Munich behaviour of some important members of ISSG. We start with Russia, by far the most important player. It is significant that Russia did not commit itself to a pause in bombing mainly directed at US/Saudi Arabia-supported rebels, though it claims from time to time that its principal target is the Islamic State. During the negotiations, the US tried, but failed, to make Russia agree to a pause in the bombing. Later, Kerry publicly asked Russia for a pause in bombing and got a refusal in public. Russia has consistently, though incorrectly, maintained that all those who are opposed to Assad are terrorists. Russia had initially wanted the cessation of hostilities to come into force only after two weeks, but relented to agree to one week. If the parties are sincere they do not need one week to have a pause in fighting.

    Next is Saudi Arabia, which had, on 6 February, announced plans to send troops to Syria. The day after the Munich deal was announced Saudi Arabia sent planes and military personnel to the Incirlik base in Turkey. There was a warning from Syria that foreign troops entering its territory without permission will “go back in coffins’. It is still not clear whether Saudi Arabia will send ground troops. But, the closer military cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia needs to be watched. To an extent, it shows Saudi Arabia’s frustration with Egypt’s rejection of its request for troops for the Saudi adventure or misadventure in Yemen.

    Turkey started shelling the Kurds in Syria the day after the Munich deal was announced. Turkey has been engaged in a brutal suppression of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) for decades, with occasional interruptions. Erdogan won the last general election mainly because he projected his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), as the only party that can save Turkey from Kurdish terrorism. Turkey’s bête noire is the YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the Syrian Democratic Front, an ally of the US against the Islamic State. The US is repairing an airfield in the Kurdish area. Turkey has rejected the US request to stop the shelling. The divide between the US and Turkey over Syria is widening. Russia has sought a meeting of the Security Council to discuss Turkey’s action.

    Given the post-Munich action by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the helplessness of the US, it should not come as any surprise to anyone that President Assad should declare on 16 February that he had no intention of any cessation of hostilities. He was addressing a group of lawyers and made it clear that even the idea of a transitional arrangement, a key element of Security Council Resolution 2254, was not acceptable to him.

    The continued Russian bombing, almost amounting to carpet bombing with the use of cluster bombs, has caused thousands of Syrians from Aleppo to rush to Turkey, which initially refused to let them in but relented under pressure from the European Union. Here again, an inconsistency may be noted. The EU, with a population of 500 million, has taken about one million refugees and is refusing to take in more, whereas Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, with a combined population of 90 million, have taken in more than five million refugees.

    The question arises as to whether the US was chasing a mirage in Munich. Perhaps, it is unfair to say that Kerry did not know that the deal was a mirage. He himself admitted that the ceasefire plan was "ambitious" and said the real test would be whether the various parties honoured the commitments: "What we have here are words on paper, what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground.” All told, it is difficult to deny that Kerry was chasing a mirage knowing that it was one. Syria will not figure in the list of foreign policy successes of President Obama when he leaves office in about ten months’ time. By that time, the situation in Syria might have changed in a manner making it almost impossible for the US to be an effective player.

    The Munich deal, abortive though it is, proves that Russia, by engaging militarily in a substantive manner, has placed itself at a decidedly advantageous place at the negotiating table as compared to the US, which has, for various reasons, good and bad, failed to lend the necessary level of military support to the rebels it calls ‘moderate’. As of now, there is nothing that stands in the way of Assad consolidating his military victory in Aleppo unless the US chooses to give anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels it supports. But it is doubtful whether Assad’s ambition to recover all the lost territory will ever be realized. He will remain as President of a diminished Syria, as far as one can make out at present.

    For months, the international media and scholars have been telling us that the toll in Syria is 250,000. The UN had arrived at that figure sometime back and then stopped counting owing to difficulties in getting reliable data. Obviously, the grim toll has been rising and has reached 470,000, according to the Beirut-based Syrian Centre for Policy Research. The Centre’s finding is that life expectancy has fallen from 70 years in 2010 to 55.4 in 2015. The total economic damage works out to USD 255 billion. It is painful to remark that there is no real international community, as the rest of the world does not care for the thousands of Syrians, dying or suffering. Russia has bombed hospitals again and again. Reckless spoilers are not stopped by helpless guardians.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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