Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is Syrian Peace Unachievable?

     The Syrian civil war continues to ravage the broader Middle East with no end in sight.  Surrounding nations have really felt the brunt of unintended side effects such as millions of displaced refugees and terrorist central where foreign fighters have flocked to a terror training school of sorts.  Borders have evaporated and terrorists have enjoyed free movement of human capital, goods, weapons, and more broadly, jihadist ideology.

     Peace talks have withered and the Geneva II discussions, which took place earlier this year, failed to broker any real progress aside from providing legitimacy to Syrian rebel groups, according to Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs who testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Syria.  Now, Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy to Syria, will be stepping down from this post sighting failure to reach a deal as the catalyst for his decision.  NPR reported that Brahimi's resignation mirrors that of his predecessor Kofi Annan following another failed peace plan.

     A concrete peace deal cannot come soon enough.  Presidential elections in Syria are beginning to ramp up and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is poised to win a third seven year term.  The issue of Assad's tenure as president of Syria has been a key issue in brokering a peace agreement between rebel factions and pro-Assad/government forces.  Despite the democratic facade, Syria has been repressive and corrupt.  During the last presidential election, the sole ballot question was, "Should Bashar Assad stay in power for another seven-year term?"  It would appear as if Assad has less military authority to elicit fear into voters given the constant fighting that has plagued the nation for the better part of two years but his two challengers are weak and Assad is backed by Iran and their proxies as well as Russia.  Such international (and regional support for that matter) is sure to bolster Assad's power grab.

     With the fall of the city of Homs from the grasp of rebels back into the hands of Assad's troops, the rebels seem to be losing steam, however, there are some reports of marginal gains in southern Syria.  For many experts, it is too late for the United States to provide military aid that the rebels and their backers such as the Arab League requested months ago despite reports of the US providing anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.

     A few important questions to consider are: what happens if Assad wins reelection?  Will the fighting cease?  If the fighting concludes, will the international community be satisfied with Assad staying in power?  Many in the international community are demanding Assad be held accountable for massive human rights violations such as gassing his own citizens.  Unfortunately, many experts believe the international systems in place, such as the International Criminal Court, are not strong enough.  Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, Executive Director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that the international community and their processes are too slow and reconciliation must come from within with Syrian courts and Syrian judges.  He notes, however, that if the domestic courts fail, Syria may have no alternative but international courts.  Additionally, Assad's allies, such as Iran, do not want to see him lose power because their interests may be marginalized in the region.  According to Robin Wright of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, Iran's alliance with Assad and Syria is merely tactical and not strategic.  The Iranians feel they must align themselves with leaders such as Assad or Maliki in Iraq because they (Shia's) are outnumbered in the region and until a more formidable leader or ally emerges, Iran is stuck with Assad.  In terms of ousting Assad, Judith Yaphe of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, believes that the way Assad leaves is important and must involve members of the region.

     While the fighting continues, the most important issue to consider in the near future is the upcoming presidential election.  An Assad victory would signify an utter failure of the rebellion.  If he is allowed to remain in power, it will also delegitimize the standing of the United Nations where nations such as Russia may unilaterally block Security Council resolutions.  The "responsibility to protect" or R2P will also be viewed as insignificant in the face of atrocities committed by the Assad government.  Gulf nations have played a major role in the conflict because the regional stakes are much larger for them than western nations.  However, Syria has become a haven for terrorist training and Europeans make up the largest faction of foreign fighters poised to return to their homelands and inflict damage on their governments.

     The civil war in Syria has snowballed into a global problem with which the majority of nations want nothing to do.  The path to peace is difficult and there are several areas to consider.  The immediate concerns should focus on a ceasefire agreement between the two sides upon which a trans-governmental agreement can be brokered.  The next step must include plans to deal with the remaining terrorist groups who have gained control of northern regions of Syria and have gained significant influence by capitalizing on the security vacuum.  Stable and lasting governance must be addressed secondly.  With the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, however, peace seems unreachable for the foreseeable future.            


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