The fact that there are many different actors involved in Syria, each of them pursuing its own interests, is making it difficult for the global community to resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, gestures while speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, third right, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, look at him before a bilateral meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo: AP
One of the major obstacles to installing a peace mechanism in Syria is the absence of cohesion and a divergence of interests among the actors involved. The turmoil in Syria has given rise to a number of actors at different levels, including trans-national terrorist groups, opposition groups, regional actors and global players such as the U.S. and Russia. The gravity and complexity of the situation has undermined several attempts for peace in the past. However, the United Nations expedited its mechanism and the UN Security Council passed two major resolutions (Resolution 2249 and Resolution 2254) on Syria, setting a precedent for peaceful settlement of the conflict.
These accelerated and highly motivated moves by the Security Council are fueled by a series of events pertaining to Syria either directly or indirectly. The catalyzers for the Security Council’s accelerated approach are Russia’s decision to rescue Assad’s regime in Syria in October, the Paris terrorist attacks in mid-November and, last but not least, the downing of the Russian fighter plane Su-24 by Turkey in the last week of November. Perhaps most important is growing public opinion in Syria and the wider Middle East about Russia as a peace guarantor and stabilizing force in the region.
Neither Russia nor the United Sates is moved by the scale of the human catastrophe in Syria. Emotions, ethics and morality have little or no relation to statehood. Interestingly, the masses believe these moral principles are applicable in international politics. Presumably, it’s neither wrong nor unjustified to visualize an international system and network of actors, practicing foreign policy in compliance with settled and agreed upon rules, norms and values based on ethics and morality. However, people are simply unaware of the fact that the state does not have emotions, nor does there exist a space for emotions in statehood.
Notable realist Hans J. Morgenthau argues that politics is an autonomous driving force for statecraft that utilizes ethics or moral principles to achieve political objectives, not for ethics and morality to be the objectives. Similar are the views of his predecessor in the field such as Machiavelli in “The Prince,” Hobbes in “Leviathan,” Chanakya and the ancient Roman and Greek mentors. If it is so, then why are we witnessing a sudden wake-up call of the Security Council and back-to-back resolutions, while it paid lip service to mass killings of 250,000 and millions of displaced Syrian people both internally and externally?
It’s been four decades since Russia fought in Afghanistan, a war outside of Soviet borders; intervention in Syria is the first military engagement by Moscow in the post-Soviet era. It is pertinent to analyze Russia’s motives, intentions and objectives in Syria. The Kremlin offers the primary explanation of its objective in Syria as the following: to restrict and root out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria and to prevent its domino effect in Central Asia, which is believed to be a special zone of post-Soviet Russian interests. Moreover, the success of ISIS would empower extremist ideologies and their alleged links to Grozny-based separatists. Thus, to nip this evil in the bud is in Russia’s national interest.
Contrary to this view, Western scholars criticize these explanations or stated objectives of Russian intervention in Syria and they tend to believe that Russia desired to change the focus of global attention away from Ukraine and so the situation in Syria rescued Russia. If the assumption is true, it is interesting to say that Moscow has succeeded in this campaign. Ukraine is rarely mentioned now and Syria is now at the top of the global agenda.
Having bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States refrained from intervening effectively in Libya and Syria. This negated the myth of the global hegemon’s reputation for resolve and commitment to the world’s peace and security. Annoyed by Russia’s unilateral intervention in favor of Assad’s regime in Syria, the Paris attacks allowed the West and the United States to reassess their policy towards the Syrian conflict. France hastily made up its mind and started attacking ISIS, perhaps to pacify the masses’ resentment within its capital and national boundaries as well.
Following Resolution 2249, the United Kingdom too jumped in by bombing ISIS and the conflict zone. The resolution declared ISIS a source of “unprecedented” threat to international peace and security, called on member states to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and destroy ISIS and its capacity to practice violence and acts of terrorism. Thus, the United States and its allies are on one side and Russia with Assad’s regime on the other, fighting in Syria, presumably for different goals.
One might not disagree with the notion that Russia escaped from Ukraine and Crimea by way of Syria; at the same time, one must accept the West’s and the Security Council’s back-to-back resolutions are credit-seeking diplomatic moves, aiming at decreasing the popularity of Russia in Syria and negating the resonance of failures of Western solutions to the conflict. It can be argued that the Security Council resolutions are not possible without Russia’s concurrent vote, yet, it does not nullify the logic of consequences to take such resolutions in so efficient a manner.
Does Resolution 2249 influence significantly ISIS and other rebel groups? The answer to this question is not hopeful. In asymmetrical conflict, carpet bombing is not very influential, as it was not instrumental against the Vietcong in Vietnam War, nor did it help substantially against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, ISIS claims to be a state, exercising certain attributes of a state. Yet, unlike any nation-state, its formal structure is rather informal and difficult to degrade through aerial bombing. Consequently, it’s not safe to assume terrorist attacks like those in Paris, Sinai, and Beirut in the future are less likely, as otherwise stated in the resolution.
Coming to the most recent development, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing a road map for the peace process in Syria and setting a timetable for talks in early January 2016. Peace talks would be facilitated by the UN between the Syrian government and opposition members, as well as offer the outlines of a nationwide ceasefire to begin as soon as the parties concerned had taken initial steps towards a political transition. Endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué and the “Vienna Statements” in pursuit of the Communiqué’s implementation as the basis for a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition to end the conflict in text appears optimistic.
The question is not about a text for peace or calling upon such measures by the United Nations, rather, the question is: How would it be implemented? Russia criticized the resolution as an externally imposed solution to Syrian problem. To appease Russia’s and Assad’s regime change apprehensions, the resolution does not deprive them of participating in UN-facilitated peace talks and participating in future elections. Similarly, it’s naive to consider a nationwide ceasefire, assuming ISIS and other rebels that would be party to the peace talks would opt for a ceasefire within six months.
Also read: "What to expect from Russia’s Syria policy in 2016"
It seems that the Syrian conflict has spun dramatically out of control. Multiple actors and their pursuit of divergent objectives is the central obstacle to de-escalating the conflict. Unanimous resolutions have been lined up, but the on-the-ground reality is different: even if Resolution 2254 is successfully implemented, it needs a minimum of six months’ time for peace talks and a further 18 months for elections. Although human advancement in technology may have experienced rapid change, the current method of resolving conflicts is more or less a decade-long process, as in the case of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.