Syria: Geneva 3 Fallout
The negotiation process between the P5+1 and Iran started earlier this autumn and which has concluded in the Geneva 3 Interim Agreement on November 24, 2013, may have some unexpected repercussions over the Syrian conflict. The close ties between Syria and Iran and the covert aid that the Islamic Republic is pumping into its ally make the two issues inextricably linked to one another. So it’s easy to understand why the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the date of January 22, 2014 for the Geneva II negotiations on November 25, the day after the successful completion of the Iran talks.
But the foundations for this new diplomatic overture were laid three months ago, when US President Obama backed down from a Western military strike against Syria by referring the matter to the US Congress, which unsurprisingly refused to sanction it due to the little to no domestic support. This backing down from the strike had some unexpected effects on the American approach to the Syrian civil war.
First and foremost, this withdrawal meant that the United States would have to delay and most probably renounce its established objective of regime change in Syria. Giving the controversy surrounding the Al-Ghouta chemical attack in August that prompted the push for intervention and the subsequent deal on elimination the Syrian chemical weapons have removed much of the US grounds for acting against Al-Assad.
Secondly, and following directly from the first consequence, is that from now on America would have to negotiate with the Syrian government in order to achieve a peaceful solution to the civil war, or at least sanction such a negotiation process between the Assad regime and the opposition.
Because the chemical weapons were insignificant to the military developments on the ground in the last three years, and because America had pledged by the chemical weapons deal not to attack Syrian government forces, this meant that US was effectively abandoning its plan to help the Syrian rebels through military strikes against the Assad regime.
This abandonment removed the possible excuses United States had in postponing a Geneva II peace conference. These stalls were used by America throughout 2012 and 2013 in order to buy time to supply with weapons the Syrian insurgency and help it achieve victory on the field. The failure to achieve these successes and combined with the military achievements the Assad regime had scored throughout 2013 (in May-June at Qusayr and now in December in the Qalamoun Mountains), the prospect of a rebel military victory in Syria is all but gone. They may continue to hold territory for some time and launch sporadic suicide attacks, but will not pose a significant threat to the existence of the Assad regime in Damascus.
Right now, the United States has no effective options left for dealing with the Syrian civil war, but diplomacy and negotiations through the Geneva II. It needs to use this opportunity to get something done in Syria, or lose the window. But no solution in dealing with Syria can be achieved if Iran disagrees of it. This may be one of the reasons behind the “sudden” breakthrough in negotiations with Iran.
Among other reasons for the revitalization of the Geneva II peace conference is the character of the Syrian insurgency. Split among more than one thousand groups, it suffers from a terrible lack of coordination. Even more than that, all the factions, off-shoots, movements and brigades are often fighting each other for the control of money and weapons supply from abroad.
But inside this confusing web called the Syrian insurgency, two main trends can be observed. The first is the so called Free Syrian Army, comprised mainly from defectors from the regular Syrian Arab Army, under the nominal command of General Salim Idris. It represents the more moderate player in the opposition movement and is formally under the civilian command of the Syrian National Coalition based in Istanbul, Turkey, and it is supported by the West with money, weapons and other supplies.
It was the first organized military opposition to the Assad regime in the early days of the Syrian Uprising, but it has lost much of revolutionary character. During more than two years of fighting, it has transformed from a rebel army into a collection of war princes, more interested in enriching themselves than in fighting. Too many FSA commanders are keen in establishing checkpoints to extract travel tolls, they are levying taxes on the local population and are engaged in very lucrative smuggling operations on the Turkish frontier. Considering all these factors, it is easy to understand why the FSA is opposing the attempts to end the war, which has turned into an extremely profitable business. The FSA went so far as refusing to attend the upcoming Geneva II negotiations, when its nominal civilian supervisors, the SNC, announced their participation.
The other main trend in the Syrian insurgency comprises the religiously-based Jihadist and Salafist movements, among which the most powerful are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) with Iraqi origins and the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra Front, affiliated to al-Qaeda. These two groups have the best fighters within the Syrian rebels groups, battle-hardened and experienced Jihadist veterans from various campaigns in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq and so on. These groups get their support mainly from the Persian Gulf countries, either from their intelligence services or from donations by wealthy individuals.
They are by far the most dangerous fighters against the Assad regime, but are distrusted by the West because of their religious fundamentalism. The United States fears them, believing that after achieving success in Syria, they will plot more terrorist attacks like 9/11.
Among the regional players involved in the Syrian conflict on the side of the insurgency, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are probably the most committed.
But Turkey has recently announced a breakthrough in its relations with Iran, after the conclusion of the Geneva 3 talks on November 24. After a meeting of their foreign ministers on November 26 and 27, where they have called for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict, it appears that the long expressed hostility towards the Assad regime and the calls for a regime change in Syria will become a thing of the past.
There is a long list of reasons that pushed for such a shift in Turkish foreign policy. Among the most important of these are the failure of the previous Turkish efforts for “regime change” in Syria in the last two years, which have succumbed against the determined resistance of the Assad regime and the combined Russian and Iranian aid for Syria, the spillover of the Syrian civil war into Turkish territory, the September 2013 agreement for dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons, which removed a great deal of the US pressure on the Assad regime, the destabilizing effect of the Syrian civil war upon the Kurdish minority in Turkey, the perceived shift in US policy in the Middle East, which demanded a more independent Turkish foreign policy, the differences between Turkey and Saudi Arabia regarding the ousting of the Egyptian president Morsi by the Egyptian military and the subsequent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood (both in very good terms with the ruling party in Turkey), the threat represented by the extremist organizations fighting in Syria (mainly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra) and the specter of sectarian conflict pursued by them, a desire to be in better terms with the apparent winners of the Syrian civil war (the Assad regime, Russia and Iran), and last but not least the pressures on the Turkish economy by the international sanctions against Iran, a major supplier of hydrocarbon resources for Turkey.
On the other hand, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appears to have remained the only supporter for “regime change” in Syria. Under the paranoid fears of Iran’s ascendancy in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) went “all-in” against the Assad regime.
Its support for the Syrian insurgency is now the biggest in the region, with both money and manpower. There have even been credible reports of Saudi prisons being emptied of prisoners, which were shipped to gain their redemption fighting against the Assad regime. But the Saudi plans do not stop at this. Under the determined command of the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, there are plans for a Rebel Syrian Liberation Army to form in Jordan. This force is intended to deploy 40,000-50,000 fighters by spring 2014 and bolster its numbers up to 250,000 by 2016. It remains to be seen, though, if such grandiose plans will be carried out.
The recent diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran and their apparent effect on the Geneva II talks seem to have dissuaded the KSA from pursuing its undeclared war against the Assad regime in Syria. In the last Gulf Cooperation Countries meeting on November 28, 2013, a joint statement by their foreign ministers called for strengthening the support for the Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul.
While the rebels doing the fight in Syria may scream: “Treachery!” and reject such a move, without support from abroad they will not last long. There are chances that Syria will enjoy peace again.