In Multipolarity

By Al-Monitor‘s ‘Week In Review’, June 19, 2016

A Syrian official suggests “federalization” could be the outcome of the political reform discussions, as the Obama administration holds the line on calls for airstrikes against the Syrian government.

Jean Aziz, reporting from Damascus [full text below], describes an almost eerie normalcy and confidence in the Syrian capital, despite the sound of missiles in the distance. Syrian politicians and officials are quietly planning the nature and extent of political reform in Syria, in consultation, of course, with Moscow and Tehran.

President Obama meeting with U.S. National Security Council at State Department offices in Washington in February 2016 (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

President Obama meeting with U.S. National Security Council at State Department offices in Washington in February 2016 (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

A Syrian official told Aziz, “We have gone beyond the stage of discussing the fate of the regime or tackling the regime members. Today, we are [in] a battle to define the regime’s form, its work mechanisms and its way of dealing with the Syrian people and with Syria [itself]. Some are speaking of a federation and a decentralized system, among other forms, like Kurds, Russians and even [President] Bashar al-Assad himself. This is what is being discussed today. The rest is behind us.”

Commenting on a reported Russian draft of a new Syrian Constitution, the Syrian official added, “We have made some comments on this draft. The pluralism mentioned therein is secured under the local administration law in Syria and is therefore constitutionally guaranteed. Therefore, there is no need for any [changes] in this regard.”

Iran is actively involved in the deliberations on political reform. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explained to Laura Rozen in an email on June 16, “I have said all along that there will be no solution if we focus on any individual, because it is a zero-sum question that will inevitably lead to stalemate and deadlock. … The answer is to focus on institutional dispersion of power and the future form of governance, through which you may be able to reduce or even eliminate the centrality of the role of any individual or ethnicity.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry had said Jan. 18 that Iran’s proposal for reform in Syria was “very close” to what was envisaged in the Geneva talks, and “needs to be explored.”

Zarif’s comments on the need for a political solution in Syria complement, and do not contradict, the shared interest of Syria, Iran and Russia in eradicating terrorist armed groups from northern Syria and Aleppo as a prerequisite for meaningful political negotiations. Although Abbas Qaidaari reports from Tehran on rumors of some uncertainty about Russia’s ultimate objectives in Syria, the three countries are in agreement on a military approach to Syria “that does not lead to terrorists building up their powers,” as Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan said, referring to actions by Jaish al-Fatah and other armed opposition groups that have coordinated attacks with Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria under the cover of the cessation of hostilities.

In Syria, the conversation has moved beyond whether or not the Syrian military plans to defend and hold “useful Syria” or retake the rest of the country. A Syrian parliamentarian told Aziz, “We are determined to restore the Syrian territory entirely. Our troops are still in Deir ez-Zor [in the east] to date and this is sufficient evidence. The battle has moved to Raqqa now. But around Damascus, we are keen to reduce [the numbers of] our army and we want to start with the liberation of areas that are more strategic than others.”

A misguided “dissent” on Syria

The Obama administration is so far holding the line on its Syria policy despite a “dissent” cable from 51 State Department officials calling for military strikes against the Syrian government.

In an initial response, the White House noted June 16 that the cessation of hostilities, despite violations, has allowed aid to reach 820,000 Syrians over the past four months.

The result of understandable frustration, the recommendation of military strikes against the Syrian government — no matter how well intentioned — is, in the end, escalatory, and would likely result in more war, killing, refugees, less humanitarian aid reaching civilians, the empowerment of jihadis and so on.

We admit to not following the logic of how such an escalation — which would probably risk US-Russia ties, UN-mediated talks, the International Syria Support Group, possible US-Iran understandings in Iraq and other conflict regions, and just about every other fragile bit of hard-earned and admittedly fragile diplomatic progress earned in the last eight months — would somehow be worth the numerous downsides in the hope it would “convince enough Syrian Sunni Arabs to fight the Islamic State,” as former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Laura Rozen.

Perhaps what is actually meant is that military strikes would allow some form of deal with US partners in the region — which have been regularly called out by senior US officials for not doing their share in the anti-IS coalition, and which back Salafi and jihadi groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, which have allied themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — to, finally, step up against IS in return for the United States placing itself on the slippery slope of unintended consequences and another regime change endeavor in the Middle East, although the cable explicitly says that regime change is not the intended outcome of military action.

By the way, the role of these Salafi groups — as well as their violations of the cessation of hostilities, their foreign backers and their relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra — is missing from the dissent cable. Indeed, there is no mention of Jabhat al-Nusra at all, nor is there acknowledgement of the growing international terrorist threat from IS, such as that referenced in the testimony of CIA Director John Brennan on June 16.

So count our strong dissent from this misguided dissent, especially because, perhaps unintentionally, in addition to probably blowing up the diplomatic framework and the thin reed of hope and aid it has offered the Syrian people, this sectarian-first thinking would further mainstream jihadi armed groups that ally with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. This column has documented how Ahrar al-Sham in particular, and other Salafi groups, have deepened coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra and violated the cessation of hostilities since February. Jaish al-Islam, it will be recalled, is being investigated for the use of chlorine gas in northern Aleppo. The Institute for the Study of War reports that last week the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, attacked Khalasah, a Syrian government town.

We also share the Obama administration’s instinctual caution about the use of force in the Middle East, especially recalling the experiences in Iraq and Libya, which are ongoing, and, we believe, not worth emulating (and reference to which are also left out of the dissent cable).

Instead of chucking all of the hard-earned diplomatic gains to date, another alternative is that the United States could take up the Russian offer for increased coordination to target Jabhat al-Nusra, while keeping US-backed groups out of Russia’s line of fire. The United States and Russia may be closer to an agreement regarding coordination of military targeting. This approach would preserve the fragile diplomatic framework for the Syria talks and the cessation of hostilities, expand operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliates and hold Russia to account for hitting moderate opposition forces and civilians.

Three related readings:
Iran shifts on Syria, Al-Monitor, June 20, 2016

WASHINGTON — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, at meetings in Oslo, Norway, this week, signaled that he has more authority on the Syria file than he has had until now, and that Iran may be prepared to show more flexibility to advance a political solution, sources who met with him there told Al-Monitor

Tehran drags Moscow deeper into Syria, Al-Monitor, June 20, 2016

Near Damascus, watch out for missiles, shelling and speeding tickets

By Jean Aziz, Al-Monitor, June 16, 2016

For the first time since the Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1976, a civilian at the Syrian Jdeidet Yabous border crossing can note the presence of Lebanese politicians going to Damascus. For 40 years, Syrian authorities designated a special line at the crossing for prominent Lebanese figures who are friends of the regime. This was known as the “military line.”

Over all those years, those lucky ones, such as ministers, parliamentarians, politicians, party leaders and figures close to Syrian officials, were given recommendation cards to use this special line and avoid the hassle of standing at Syrian General Security centers or waiting for entry and exit papers. This was the case right up through late May.

However, the scene was different June 1, as several Lebanese politicians took the “civilian line.” A Syrian taxi driver told Al-Monitor, “A new measure was introduced by the Syrians a few days ago. The military line is now completely closed, and it has become imperative for everyone to take the formal crossing without exception.”

In Damascus, life seems almost normal. Even the staccato bursts of missile and artillery shells have become quite common for Damascenes.

Al-Monitor visited a Syrian parliament member, who insisted on remaining anonymous, at his house in Damascus to discuss the latest developments in Syria. Al-Monitor’s first question was about the nearby sound of missiles. With a smile, the host confirmed that the sound was coming from Daraya, a suburb only 5 miles away. “People have become accustomed to such sounds. They can even know if a missile is falling down or being launched. These sounds have stopped affecting them.”

He added, “Our military [the Syrian regime army] has made a series of … incursions on several fronts in Ghouta,” another nearby suburban area. “The Syrian army and its allies are dealing fatal blows to the opposition gunmen. But the Syrian authorities in Damascus are dealing with the front under advisement, as the decision-making process is now subject to certain priorities. Where shall we strike and where shall we restore the land?” He did not mention what priorities he was referring to.

This pushes one to question whether these priorities are subject to the so-called concept of “useful Syria,” whose idea is that Syrian authorities seek to liberate the most desirable parts of Syrian territory, in the west, while overlooking the fact that other areas are still controlled by gunmen. The Syrian parliamentarian, who is very close to the decision-making circles in Damascus, said this was not true.

“We are determined to restore the Syrian territory entirely. Our troops are still in Deir ez-Zor [in the east] to date and this is sufficient evidence. The battle has moved to Raqqa now. But around Damascus, we are keen to reduce [the numbers of] our army and we want to start with the liberation of areas that are more strategic than others.”

On the way to the office of a Syrian government official, Al-Monitor asked the parliament member about the disappearance of the “military line” at the border. “It was closed based on the direct instructions of the presidential palace,” he replied. “New measures have been taken since the identification of the people behind the series of bombings that hit the Syrian coast in Tartus on May 23. One of the terrorists had a recommendation card from a Lebanese politician close to Damascus to take the military line.”

Asked if this means that a security breach took place, he rushed to say that the issue was “individual and limited.”

“But the seriousness of the crime led to the issuance of the new regulations. What happened is not normal. The media reported more than 100 people killed in the Tartus bombings, but there is talk among Syrian officials about 400 people dead and twice as many wounded,” he said.

At the office of the Syrian government official, who also requested that his name not be mentioned, the discussion went directly to political issues. The official briefly summarized the Syrian situation by saying, “We have gone beyond the stage of discussing the fate of the regime or tackling the regime members. Today, we are [in] a battle to define the regime’s form, its work mechanisms and its way of dealing with the Syrian people and with Syria [itself]. Some are speaking of a federation and a decentralized system, among other forms, like Kurds, Russians and even [President] Bashar al-Assad himself. This is what is being discussed today. The rest is behind us.”

Regarding the leak of the so-called Russian draft of a new Syrian Constitution, the Syrian government official did not deny the existence of such a draft. “We have made some comments on this draft. The pluralism mentioned therein is secured under the local administration law in Syria and is therefore constitutionally guaranteed. Therefore, there is no need for any [changes] in this regard,” he added.

It is noteworthy that the draft constitution prepared by Russia was leaked May 24 and received negative criticism from many Syrian journalists. This pushed Syrian authorities to issue official denials. But the official who met with Al-Monitor did not deny that there is a draft.

As to whether the Russian draft was made in coordination with the Iranians, or whether the competition between Moscow and Tehran over their role in Damascus became evident, the official replied, “There is no competition at all. There may be some misunderstandings or poor coordination at times — like when the Russians and the Americans declared a truce in February and the Iranians were not aware of it — but the three of us have met and discussed things. We [Syrians] have full confidence in both allies [Iran and Russia]. Therefore, we are facilitating the relationship between the two and giving them all the information we have. There is no problem at all at this level.”

To a question about what is impeding an actual solution, he answered, “I think the only problem remaining is with Turkey, depending on what Ankara’s leaders want and the influence they aspire to have, be it in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere. For their part, the Saudi and Qatari risks in terms of armament and financing of [the opposition] have dramatically receded. The only threat remaining is [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, who is still playing with fire in neighboring [countries]. But we are aware that he is as much of a problem for Washington and Moscow as he is for us, so we are reassured,” the government official replied.

At the door of his office, the official remembered a critical point. He said, “The Syrian pound exchange rate to the US dollar fell by about 30% today [June 4], as our monetary authorities do not intervene in the exchange market. This is a very positive sign.”

The improvement of the Syrian pound exchange rate increases its purchasing power for Syrians living in Syria, as it leads to a price decrease and an upgrade in living conditions.

On my way back from Damascus to Beirut, I saw a Syrian policeman running radar under the hot sun along the desert road. The surrounding areas are controlled by armed terrorists, yet the policeman was issuing tickets to drivers speeding to or from Damascus to escape an ambush or shooting.

This was such a surreal scene, but at the same time it showed that the Syrian state is still functional at some level.

*****

EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search