Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The solution in Syria is bigger than Assad

When the United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declared last week that president Bashar Al Assad was “part of the solution” in Syria, he knew he would raise a firestorm.

Opposition groups have accused the envoy of going back on the Geneva framework for Syria, which calls for the establishment of a transitional government to replace Mr Al Assad. In other words, they outline a solution without him.

It could be that Mr de Mistura was simply reflecting the changing mood internationally, as Mr Al Assad’s removal is no longer a priority while the fight against ISIL escalates.

Or he could have been using an anodyne phrase to push Mr Al Assad to approve the plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo, without any broader implications for the Syrian president’s destiny. Diplomacy often advances ambiguously and there is much to suggest that Mr de Mistura, an experienced international diplomat, was deploying calculated ambiguity here.

But an interesting development last week also put the efforts of the Swedish-Italian UN envoy into some sort of perspective. Representatives of Syria’s main Kurdish organisations, meeting on Friday in Qamishli, called for the “geographic and political unity” of Kurdish areas in northern and north-eastern Syria in the context of a “federal [Syrian] state”.

The representatives also sought to agree to a process of coordination between two Syrian Kurdish parties, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, the first seen as close to Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers Party, the second to Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

This movement towards a Kurdish consensus was made possible by the fact that Mr Barzani’s peshmerga came to the assistance of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Kobani last year, despite previous conflicts between Mr Ocalan and Mr Barzani. Ironically, this did not displease Turkey, which has good relations with Mr Barzani and saw the intervention as a way of controlling the YPG.

Yet as Mr Al Assad slowly but surely consolidates himself politically, the question remains over what kind of Syria he will rule if he does manage to remain in power.

Since the logic of the anti-ISIL campaign dictates that Mr Al Assad may ultimately remain in office, does it not also suggest that Kurdish autonomy in Syria will end up being accepted by many countries? In both cases the primary aim internationally is to allow governing structures to be put in place that can defeat ISIL and prevent the revival of similar groups.

The reason is that the success of ISIL has been made possible by dysfunctional, divided polities. Therefore, all measures that increase political cohesiveness in Arab states or entities will be embraced if they can ward off the revival of jihadists who benefit from the vacuums proliferating around the region.

As the map of the Middle East is being redrawn, particularly in Syria and Iraq, what happens to Mr Al Assad will no longer be that important. The territories he controls, stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast, plus the areas in between, are more or less reconciled with his rule. Within these confines a weakened Mr Al Assad will be tolerated by the international community.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq appear to have interpreted these dynamics rather well. While they have not called for an independent Kurdish state, which is unacceptable to both Iran and Turkey, one can expect their version of federalism to be much closer to some sort of loose confederal arrangement.

In other words, the Kurds, rather than fret over Mr de Mistura’s comments, may have properly read the endgame in Syria as one of effective separation. This has tempered their views of Mr Al Assad and the merits or demerits of his remaining in place.

As commentators such as Al Hayat’s Hazem Al Amin have astutely remarked, similar developments are at play in Iraq, where Kurds, Sunnis and Shia are creating the outlines of new sectarian or ethnic entities. Helping push this process is Iran, which realises it would have much more influence in a region that is fragmented than in one where strong Arab states prevail.

It was Iran that apparently first formulated Mr Al Assad’s strategy of holding on to what has been referred to as “useful Syria”, permitting the north and north-east of the country to fall outside the regime’s control. The recent regime offensive in the area of Qunaitra is primarily an effort by Iran to ensure that it retains an open confrontation boundary with Israel.

That is why one should perhaps not overinterpret Mr de Mistura’s phrase. The Geneva framework is all but dead, and the envoy knows this. That is why he has avoided a full discussion of Mr Al Assad’s future as the value of such a discussion at this stage has only propaganda value. One can sympathise with Mr Al Assad’s foes, but the situation is bigger than them, or him.

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