What Future for Syria?
Seven years into the conflict, the future of Syria still remains undefined. Despite the fact that the Islamic State has been defeated, while the Syrian regime has increasingly recovered strength and ground, the struggle for control of portions of the country, sectarianism, and violence continue to fuel the war. Conflicting interests of different local players and external actors further contribute to fomenting the chaos.
GMF’s Mediterranean Policy Program, in partnership with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held a workshop in Brussels April 24 with political stakeholders and experts on a possible long-term arrangement for Syria. Ambassador Gerard Steeghs is the Netherlands special envoy for Syria. We asked him during the event about the situation and how the international community can move forward.
What are the current dynamics and different stakeholders’ interests in Syria?
After the attacks due to the chemical weapons, we now see a very determined Assad, who may or may not avoid chemical weapons but will pursue the military strategy to get those parts of Syria that he still thinks he can get through military means. That would probably mean that he is going for the south and that after that he will make plans for inland. And then we have two other parts of Syria, which is on one hand the SDF held area, supported by the United States. Then there is the Turkish area where the Free Syrian Army is fighting together with Turkey. So in the end you end up with Syria consisting of three zones.
The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 specifies two players at the table, one is the regime and the other is the opposition — now the united opposition. If you look at the map as it is turning out now on the ground these two parties are not the ones that can make a deal anymore. The only thing that could happen is that somehow the opposition in Geneva is empowered by the players opposing the regime, to use the leverage of having part of Syria which is SDF or Euphrates Shield territory and use that in direct negotiations with the regime. That, however, is not going to happen: there are all sorts of other agendas and interests that are coming in to play. It is very hard indeed to see how you can still move over a multilateral track toward a solution.
Where we are now, is that none of the players — Syrian or non-Syrian — are at the moment comfortable enough with their position to sit down and make a deal. So they are still jockeying for a position, for influence, for leverage. And in the meantime a million things can get out of hand, confrontations can derail and escalate. Groups of Syrians can once again be driven out of the place where they are from and get stranded. At the moment, therefore, we need a solid crisis management system that prevents this incredibly complicated and volatile situation from seriously derailing and having an even wider negative impact to the world.
What is the future for Syria, what does a long-term arrangement look like?
I am from a country that deeply believes in multilateral structures and solutions. From where I come from 2254 is the bedrock of any way forward. We should try to get as many countries as possible on that same solid position, supporting the notion that this is the only way we can solve this. And if you do not comply to things that have already been accepted by the international community as the way forward then we should come down on the regime as hard as we can with the instruments that are available — short of military intervention. That would be, in my view, taking multilateral actions such as sanctions and diplomatic pressure much further than we have ever taken them before. This would involve close cordination with countries that are looking at it in the same way. And in that way try to muster whatever leverage we still have short of military intervention, to make clear to other players (regime and allies) this is not going to stand. We have a solution, in 2254, we agreed on that and we are going to continue to implement it to the letter. Otherwise we are going to do everything we can to block you.
I hope Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, want a functional ally in Syria. They should not want a misfit outcast nation that they have to pour money into. So as far as I am concerned they should be confronted by a determined group of countries that say: if you continue on this road this is exactly what you are going to get. There will be no letting off, so you can consider either accommodating some of the legitimate demands of the Syrian people, or you are going to be dealing with a Syrian ally that as a country is a hopeless basket case for the foreseeable future. That hopefully should make them pause for thought to at least accommodate some of the legitimate issues that are on the table.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.