A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20km north of Raqqa on February 8, 2017. Photo: AFP / Delil Souleiman

Restoring peace and normality in blood-soaked Syria is critical to stabilizing the Middle-East and securing the region’s future after six years of intense fratricidal conflict that have extracted a heavy toll on the country’s inherently secular fabric.

The vexing tug-of-war over who controls this strategically crucial nation – one that also represents the last vestige of Russia’s Middle-East presence – has led to a vertical split in Syria’s polity. As Gokhan Bacik, an eminent Turkey-Syria expert observes, trust between various ethnic groups is at its nadir in Syria today.

In this context, the recently-held talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, assume great significance – especially given that previous UN-sponsored peace talks have consistently collapsed.

Crucially, Russia, supported by Turkey and Iran, is now determined to work out an acceptable political settlement to Syria’s protracted civil war in collaboration with other major world players led by America.

While the Astana talks did not produce any major breakthrough – the Syrian government and opposition delegations avoiding direct discussions – a realization has dawned, as reflected in the final statement, that there can be no military solution to the Syrian issue.

The crucial point is that, with up to 60 different armed factions being involved in the civil war, most of them operating as proxies for the geostrategic interests of others, even agreeing on a peace framework isn’t child’s play.

The United States has to date been apprehensive of Russia’s intentions, notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s broad hint about abandoning a regime change agenda in Syria to work closely with Moscow in the matter of confronting Islamic State and other terrorist actors.

A Russia expert at America’s Foreign Policy Council, Stephen Blank likens the Moscow-backed peace initiative to a “nineteenth century imperial division of Syria into Iranian, Turkish and Russian spheres of influence.”

Blank predicts a shared protectorate status for Syria in the coming days, with Russia retaining its leverage over oil and other selected economic sectors.

Alexander Kuznetsov, a renowned Russian Middle-East expert and Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Institute of Forecasting and Resolving Political Conflicts disagrees, however. “Russia has never been an aggressive colonial power in the Middle-East.”

“It is necessary to preserve Syria’s unity. But Kurdish inhabited regions and Raqqa province may not be fully integrated into Syria for a long time”

For his part, Bacik asserts that “it is not realistic to expect a restoration of united Syria as it used to be before the war. The best likely scenario is a federal State where each group is given some kind of autonomy.” He acknowledges, however, that breaking Syria up into statelets in order to separate competing factions would be a near impossibility.

Kuznetsov concurs, and holds out hope for a secular, democratic and united Syria. “It is necessary to preserve Syria’s unity. But Kurdish inhabited regions and Raqqa province may not be fully integrated into Syria for a long time,” he says.

He advocates a Lebanon-type agreement that allows for a multi-party system, one where the highest constitutional post is reserved for the majority faction but power-sharing guarantees for minorities are locked in.

Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a Middle-East security specialist and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, offers a five-point solution: “Preservation of Syrian unity; sovereignty and rights of minorities; preventing the collapse of the military and security establishment; a power-sharing coalition to run Syria; respecting the will of majority and their right to choose their constitutional leadership through a UN-supervised free election.”

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