On June 25th, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) held a spirited luncheon discussion in its Brussels office regarding the ongoing civil war in Syria and its broader international impact. The event featured Professor Eyal Zisser, chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, and Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria and currently a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. The discussion, moderated by Sir Michael Leigh, GMF senior advisor, presented timely insights into the evolving conflict in Syria.
From its beginning as a series of protests over two years ago, the struggle in Syria has developed into a large-scale armed conflict that features escalating levels of violence as well as complex ethnic and religious dimensions. Recent events, such as the army’s recapture of the strategic town of Qusayr, may indicate a shift in momentum towards the regime. On the other hand, the international community continues to progress gradually towards increased involvement, with the United States announcing its decision to begin providing military support to the rebels after concluding that Assad’s troops had deployed chemical weapons.
After each speaker presented his views on the internal and international dimensions of the conflict, the discussion was opened up to over 25 professionals from think tanks and European institutions, as well as some business representatives. The speakers agreed that the civil war has largely settled into a deadlock between the regime and rebels, with the firm loyalty of the army preventing the collapse of the regime. Although the Assad government has agreed to participate in Geneva II talks with rebel representatives, there was little expectation of a diplomatic solution, according to the speakers. Moreover, participants expressed concern that the fragmented nature of rebel forces would bring about their defeat as the war persists. Lacking cohesive leadership and increased international support, the opposition may be unable to maintain its resistance against the regime. However, the speakers noted that, even if victorious, Assad could experience difficulty trying to reconsolidate his power across Syrian territory.
In discussing the international element of the war, speakers agreed that Russia’s position provided the primary explanation for the current quagmire in Syria. Russia’s support for the Assad regime has not only bolstered its military capabilities, but also has discouraged any foreign intervention against the government. As for the role of the Western powers, many of the participants noted that more direct involvement remained problematic, and they lamented that no action was taken during the conflict’s early stages. The speakers called for the international community to adopt a more decisive policy, though they did not advocate a specific course of action. The speakers and participants provided worthy insight into the intractable nature of the Syrian civil war and the various challenges facing policymakers in approaching any potential resolution to the conflict.