Syrian Conflict- the end, and a new beginning

Following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) at Abu Kamal, the turmoil in Syria is nearing its end. There emerges a hope for a new beginning with a peaceful future.

The conflict has taken a horrific toll: over a third of nearly 19 million Syrians have been displaced, nearly a fifth have sought refuge outside the country, and over 400,000 are dead.

The new beginning will not be without challenges, given the complexities of international relations with regard to the region. Nations have varied interests, sometimes converging and at other times, diverging.

Current situation

  • The rebels, with the solitary exception of Kurdish forces, have been losing ground, with their foreign patrons, mainly the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, becoming more equivocal.
  • The antagonists have been inconclusively engaged in the Astana Process, sponsored and guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and the U.N.-sponsored Geneva Peace Talks.

Complex International relations

  • Russia has pressed the military advantage in Syria to recently launch the search for a lasting political solution.
  • His summit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at Sochi, Russia, on November 20 produced the broad outlines of a peace process even as the Syrian leader insisted on foreign non-interference.
  • Putin held a tripartite summit on November 22 with the Presidents of Iran and Turkey. They jointly announced the convening of a Syrian peace congress at Sochi to create a framework for national reconciliation.
  • A Saudi–sponsored two-day meeting in Riyadh of over 140 Syrian rebels concluded recently with an agreement to field a unified delegation at the Geneva talks on November 28.
  • They reportedly dropped their long-standing demand for the removal of President Assad which could help break the stalemate at the talks.
  • Turkey demands the ouster of Mr. Assad and regards the Kurdish militia as terrorists, Russia and Iran hold opposite stands.
  • Even though Russia and the US. have vowed to obliterate the ISIS, they hold opposite positions on the continuation of Mr. Assad.
  • Similarly, though Israel and Saudi Arabia have their well-known differences, they are both apprehensive about Iranian gains in the Levant.
  • As Syria is the first instance of Russian military intervention abroad since the end of the Cold War, it has provoked speculation about Putin’s more muscular regional and global agenda.

Obstacles to stability

  1. The intense foreign involvement has created a bitter legacy which has to be overcome before meaningful negotiations can commence.
  2. Entrenched foreign interests often pursue divergent objectives.
  3. The prescriptions for a future polity range from a continuation of Ba’ath Arab nationalism (aka an Alawite-dominated military-security apparatus) to a Sunni Khilafat, and from a unitary republic to a loose confederation.
  4. Any peace package would necessarily require the injection of huge funds for reconstruction. Unless the peace dividend is visible soon, regression to anarchy cannot be ruled out.

Whiff of optimism

There is some room for guarded optimism:

  • The best one can realistically hope for is a congruence of major players around the incipient political process, and progressive withdrawal of foreign military presence and interests.
  • Exhausted and pauperised Syrians may come around to let bygones be bygones and create new paradigms for peaceful coexistence.
  • Syrians have an ancient civilisation which has always been multi-ethnic and mostly serene.
  • Further, their bitter experience provides a cautionary lesson.
  • The current stalemate also shows the limits of those calling for regime change by force.
  • It may be better to de-escalate than risk Syria becoming a crucible for extremism.

India’s role

  • By keeping a low profile during the conflict, India has earned wider acceptability across the Syrian social spectrum.
  • In normal times, the annual bilateral trade between the two countries was over half a billion dollars, with India enjoying a large trade surplus.
  • In a post-conflict situation, India has a potential role in institution building and reconstruction.
  • Among the possible initiatives to further our prospects could be extending an invitation to Mr. Assad for a return visit to India, holding a session of the joint commission and an Indian line of credit to finance our exports as well as projects and services.

Note: the inputs for this article are taken from The Hindu

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