In recent weeks, the psychological barrier among many Syrians, regional countries, and international organizations has fallen. There is no quick solution to the Syrian crisis. The regime remains in “useful Syria” and is expanding from Damascus to Qalamoun and Homs city in the center and west, and Kassab in the west. It has gained control of the Damascus-Beirut highway and of Suwaida and areas in Daraa between the Syrian capital and the border with Jordan in the south.
In areas outside the regime’s control, the Kurds control three cantons: (1) Hassakeh, which extends from Ras al-Ain (Sri Canet in Kurdish) to 30 kilometers [18.6 miles] to the west on the border with Turkey, and to Qamishli and Ain Diwar and al-Yaarabiyya on the Iraqi border to the east; (2) Afrin, between Aleppo and the Turkish border to the north; and (3) Ain al-Arab (Kobani in Kurdish) on the Turkish border to Tall Abyad, in a strip whose depth ranges from 30 to 60 kilometers [18.6 to 37.2 miles].
Parts of the remaining areas are controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Other parts are being fought over by warlords, leaders of the armed opposition and organizations such as ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham], which has been fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra. The regime enjoys air supremacy and controls all of Syria’s airspace.
It is a flexible balance. The regime makes an advance in an area while the opposition attacks in another. (The opposition gained control of Tall Jumu in Daraa in the south and the regime recovered Kassab in the Latakia countryside in the west). There is a military balance on the ground, whose general lines have not changed “victories” from here or “tactical withdrawals” from there.
It is a reality that doesn’t allow reaching a political settlement to a deep crisis. But Syria is experiencing further societal and economic disintegration that are difficult to heal without addressing the demands for which the people came out to the streets and whose political, economic and social questions they have put on the table.
The psychological barrier has fallen. Syrians in refuge have started acclimating themselves to their new “home” and establishing some kind of stability. They are studying, working and marrying. Some Syrians in the interior have “reconciled and forgiven.” Some have “reconciled but not forgotten.” Some have “won and avenged.” Some have “won and forgiven.” Some have “won while being afraid.” Some have accepted “half a victory.” Others are insisting on a “full victory.” Some see it as a “political battle” about partnership and quotas. Some see it as an “existential war,” which means half-measures and stopping the war are unacceptable. Some have lost socially and economically. But some have moved to a higher class, taking advantage of the war to climb the ladder on others’ pain. But all of them agree that the crisis has not been solved at its roots and that the present situation is temporary.
The governments of Syria’s neighboring countries tried to adapt to the presence of more than 3 million refugees and are preparing for security, economic and demographic challenges. Some of these governments chose to pin the blame for their failed domestic policies on the presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Some saw in the “Syrian brothers” a platform to be used to achieve victories over their local rivals. Some in the neighboring communities have resorted to racism. Others have bet that a victory by one side in Syria would strengthen their position in the internal battles. Some have accepted the existence of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians to change the sectarian or religious balance, while others fear their long-term presence.
The Friends of the Syrian People group is no longer saying that the regime’s “days are numbered,” nor are they talking about the “departure” of President Bashar al-Assad. The absence of a settlement on the horizon has put the Geneva negotiations in the refrigerator. There is no urgency in the search for an alternative to the Arab and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, nor in the search for the mission of the new envoy.
There is talk about “changing the power balance on the ground” in order to “change the calculations” of Assad to make him accept the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, a body that is accepted by both the regime and the opposition. There is no longer talk about “six or three months.”
In the recent meetings of the “hard core,” which includes 11 of the Friends of Syria group, whether meetings of security heads or senior politicians, they have started talking about the time frame for “changing the power balance” extending over “years, not months.” Some of them talk of “a year or two,” while a senior Western official talked in a closed session about “between three and five years.”
Officials in these countries tell the opposition that they are working on a “coordinated strategy” that includes military, civilian and economic elements, a strategy that aims to support the “moderate opposition” with weapons, training, expertise and information to “convince the regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) that there is no military solution to the crisis and that a transitional body must be formed.” Another goal is to “fight the extremists and jihadists.”
America and Western countries are convinced and are satisfied that the opposition is fighting ISIS. But they want the armed opposition to also fight Jabhat al-Nusra because they are increasingly aware that the influence of that group is growing, especially in Aleppo. A promise to fight Jabhat al-Nusra was one of the conditions for supplying “qualitative weapons.”
Despite the security, economic and social challenges and the political cost, they thought that the Syrian crisis could be contained. That was the actual policy. Fully confronting the regime was not acceptable. And fully supporting the opposition was not considered. They wanted a war of attrition between the jihadists and Hezbollah, and between the gunmen and the Syrian regime, a proxy war between regional powers, a war that would exhaust Iran and Russia, a war that would remain within Syria’s walls, not one that spills over to neighboring countries. Bombings here and tension there ... a camp here and displaced there ... humanitarian, medical, and food aid, and empowering civil societies. ... They wanted to manage the challenges for years until the time when a political solution could be harvested.
Then suddenly, the stagnant waters started moving. The “containment” theory regarding the Syrian crisis collapsed with the great collapse of Iraqi forces in Mosul. ISIS rapidly advanced toward Baghdad. Backing ISIS were some Sahwa fighters, disbanded Iraqi army elements and some Baathists.
Iraq was based on a consensus between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components. When this consensus collapsed, with the declining presence of President Jalal Talabani, the exclusion of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the power monopoly of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and a certain class, the conditions for the blooming of ISIS and its sisters were met. The ideological ammunition became available. The hard-liners used the socioeconomic injustices and the accumulated political exclusion since the dissolution of the Iraqi army more than a decade ago to incite people’s feelings and supply with an ideology and an organization.
Does Iraq’s exclusion-monopoly equation apply to Syria, Lebanon and other countries?
That link must be understood not only because ISIS has erased the border between Iraq and Syria, but also because it revealed the depth of the interdependence and overlap, and because it revealed that the crisis is political rather than security-related.
Therefore, responding to the threats of ISIS and the terrorists with military tools will only deepen the crisis. Using the security solution will not restore security, but will harm stability.
Some are betting on the equation “it’s either us or the jihadists” and “it’s either me or ISIS.” Some are looking for a role in the war on terrorism or are trying to exploit ISIS’s surprise for political gain. How else can we explain this cheering for ISIS’s “victories” by parties that are supposed to be on the other side, the side that is hostile to the jihadists?
Some want to use the jihadists as a pressure tool to achieve political ends, pushing things to the edge of the cliff in order to reach concessions and partnership.
For the first time, aircraft bombed ISIS headquarters east of the country. The Syrian National Coalition renewed its condemnation of ISIS’s terrorism and underlined the need to combat it. Both sides want to ride the war-on-terrorism wave.
But that is only an extension and a deepening of the impasse. A Western official said a war against the jihadists and ISIS cannot be fought without real representation of all components of Iraqi society, because otherwise it will give the impression that it’s a “Shiite war against the Sunnis.” This impression will give more ammunition for extremism and militancy and create ideal conditions for ISIS and its sisters.
Also, one cannot use the jihadists to achieve political goals. Experience over the last two decades has shown that whoever releases the jihadist genie from the bottle will not be able to return it. Experience has shown that the jihadists have stung those who played them music, have hit those who danced with them, have bitten those who slept with them in the same bed and have devoured whose who fed them.
The Sykes-Picot borders have been erased on the ground, at least in Iraq. These borders have also eroded elsewhere in the region. They are still on the map, though.
ISIS’s latest foray has presented new challenges. However, it has also revealed the depth of the questions raised in the region, questions that were put on the shelf and in the repositories of history in order to postpone having to make tough decisions while imagining that coexisting with those borders is possible.
But ISIS has turned the tables. This may represent a real opportunity, for the first time in three years, for non-cosmetic solutions and for thinking outside the box with regard to the regime and the opposition.
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