Syr­ian peace talks will fail

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

A new round of UN-spon­sored peace talks to end the ghastly civil war in Syria is sched­uled to open in Paris on Fri­day, but even now it is not clear who will be at­tend­ing. Is­lamic State will cer­tainly not be in­vited, and the UN spe­cial en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, has not yet re­vealed whether he has in­vited the other main Is­lamist groups, the Nusra Front and its ide­o­log­i­cal twin and ally, Ahrar al-Sham.

To­gether th­ese ex­treme Is­lamist groups ac­count for up to 90 per­cent of the rebel forces fight­ing Bashar al-As­sad’s bru­tal regime, and even if in­vited they prob­a­bly wouldn’t come. The re­main­der, a rag­bag of small groups some­times called the Free Syr­ian Army, might show up (un­der Amer­i­can pres­sure), or maybe not.

As­sad’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives, by con­trast, would cer­tainly go to Paris, be­cause he knows that there is no risk that he would be forced into a deal that re­moves him from power. His strat­egy for sur­vival has worked well enough that he can now af­ford to ne­go­ti­ate with some of the rebels.

When peace­ful mass protests de­mand­ing democ­racy spread to Syria in early 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring”, As­sad’s forces re­sponded at first with cau­tious vi­o­lence. Snipers killed peo­ple in the un­armed crowds of pro­test­ers, but the army didn’t ma­chine-gun the lot. Maybe he was just afraid the army wouldn’t obey his or­ders, but he may also have hoped that that level of in­tim­i­da­tion would be enough to end the demon­stra­tions.

How­ever, As­sad called all the pro­test­ers “ter­ror­ists” from the start — and he re­leased hun­dreds of ex­treme Is­lamists from prison. This has been widely in­ter­preted as an at­tempt to cre­ate a real armed Is­lamist re­bel­lion. Then he could claim to be fight­ing for­eign-backed “ter­ror­ism”, thus win­ning sup­port from abroad and from Syria’s own fright­ened mi­nori­ties.

The slide from non-vi­o­lent protest to armed up­ris­ing gave As­sad an ex­cuse to use far more vi­o­lence. By Oc­to­ber of 2011 his forces were bomb­ing and shelling rebel-held ar­eas of Syr­ian cities — and ji­hadi ex­trem­ists, in­clud­ing many re­leased from his jails, were tak­ing over the rebel forces with the help of Saudi Ara­bian and Turk­ish money and guns.

So the re­bel­lion fell largely into the hands of Sunni Arabs of the ex­trem­ist Salafi per­sua­sion. The coun­try’s large non-Arab, non-Mus­lim and Shia Mus­lim mi­nori­ties, to­gether with much of its Sunni Arab pop­u­la­tion, re­luc­tantly de­cided that As­sad’s regime was the least bad op­tion — and the re­sult is the Syria we see to­day.

The ex­o­dus of refugees has re­duced the pop­u­la­tion to 16 mil­lion, of whom 10 mil­lion, in­clud­ing al­most all the mi­nori­ties, live un­der govern­ment con­trol. There are about two mil­lion Arabs in the Syr­ian part of Is­lamic State, an­other two mil­lion un­der the con­trol of other rebel forces (also dom­i­nated by Sunni Arab Is­lamists), and two mil­lion Kurds who now have their own proto-state. It’s a calamity for Syria, but it means that the regime will sur­vive.

It’s now clear that no­body can win the war — but no­body can lose it ei­ther. Broadly speak­ing, Syria has been par­ti­tioned into four more or less sov­er­eign ter­ri­to­ries. The govern­ment rules only one-fifth of Syria, but it in­cludes most of the cities, in­dus­try and agri­cul­ture, and al­most two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion.

The Kurds con­trol a band across the north of the coun­try along the Turk­ish bor­der. Is­lamic State runs a large swathe of sparsely pop­u­lated ter­ri­tory in the east of the coun­try. And the Is­lamist ex­trem­ists of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, dom­i­nate the north-west be­hind the non-Is­lamist fa­cade of the Jaysh al-Is­lam.

The “peace talks” that Rus­sia has been pro­mot­ing since it in­ter­vened are not re­ally about cre­at­ing a re­uni­fied post-As­sad Syria. All Moscow is look­ing for (and in­creas­ingly Wash­ing­ton too) is a cease­fire be­tween all the other play­ers that leaves them in con­trol of their own ter­ri­tory and iso­lates Is­lamic State.

Even that is prob­a­bly too much to hope for.

At Turkey’s in­sis­tence, the Kurds have not been in­vited to the talks. The Nusra Front will not show up ei­ther, and even the smaller non-Is­lamist rebel groups are threat­en­ing to boy­cott the talks — which would leave As­sad’s regime look­ing like the only party in­ter­ested in “peace.”

The war will con­tinue for some time yet.

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