Bad meets Evil
During the 24th and 25th of April, the second Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the region” took place. Where is Syria in year eight of the War? Which perspectives exist for the country? 350.000 dead and 5 million displaced outside of the country, as well as ongoing war crimes can’t be ignored. Which options do Germany and EU have? And which roles take Russia and Iran?
The latest chemical attack in eastern Ghouta crossed a red line not only defined by the French president Macron. As a reaction, Donald Trump announced and finally executed an airstrike with the help of his NATO-partners Great Britain and France. The effect of that action remains debatable and what was originally the goal – a Syria without Bashar al-Assad – is completely out of reach. The obvious reason for that is an international community that is weak, divided and incapable of military action. Although various states joined the war in Syria, everybody is just fighting for their own interest and nobody for those of the Syrian civilians. The Brussels conference also can’t change that, its goal is the mobilization of humanitarian aid for Syria and its neighbors. 85 countries and organizations sent high-level representatives to gather help for the 13 million Syrians who are depending on humanitarian aid. The conference gathered resources and political support for them, but it couldn’t bring an end of the war closer. The key to do that are the participants and their respective goals.
Assad’s allies – Iran and Russia
The focus of Iran was always to keep Syria as part of the Shiite area of influence and function as a bridge between Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. But since in Syria just a rather small population is Shiite, just Assad provides a close relation between Damascus and Tehran.
Iran has established political and military structures in Syria since Teheran intervened forcefully to keep Assad’s forces from collapsing in 2013. Today, Iran has three main bases in Syria, one near Aleppo and two in the area of Damascus as well as seven smaller tactical bases. This new presence of Iran puts Israel on high alert, which is afraid of a second Hezbollah-like militia north of them. The Israeli Air force attacked about 100 times in Syria so far, the most recent attack (yet to be confirmed) happened in the night between April 8 and 9, 2018. Targets were supply convoys for Hezbollah, arms factories and Iranian positions.
Since Russia intervened in the Syrian war in 2015, it could reestablish itself as important player in the Middle East again –strengthening existing military bases and even installing new ones. For that alone, a regime is needed that allows this significant foreign influence and supports the activity of Russia’s troops in the country. The new reality is: When it comes to Syria, there is no way around Russia. But now, Putin is caught in a military mission that is becoming too expensive for the weak economy of his country. If one believes the state media, the costs are compensated by the growing arms exports, as new contracts worth approximately $15bn were signed 2017 alone. But the actual costs of the Russian mission remain concealed, as well as the number of Russian casualties. At the time, the number of Syrian casualties is raising. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports 7700 civilians killed by Russian airstrikes, 1842 off them children.
If Iran and Russia maintain their multidimensional sphere of influence and Assad continues to exert his rather undivided power, there will be no democratic or free Syria. But if he is, by whichever means, removed from office, an alternative needs to be found. In the beginning of the war, there were efforts by the opposition to provide such an alternative with a plan for the next years which should have prepared the ground for a new constitution and an elected new government. But in 2018, there is not much of the opposition left over, and Iran, Russia and Turkey have an interest in keeping Syria authoritarian like it is, to keep it easy to control and deal with. That was clearly visible in the Astana talks. Also the Geneva peace talks remained mostly unsuccessful, as the opposition was ready for negotiations, but the delegation of the Syrian government refused to talk to them.
Creating a positive Impact
So far, Germany excluded any military participation. Berlin’s international influence is growing and could become even bigger when Berlin’s application for a seat in the Security Council of the UN is successful on June 8, 2018. But this would only be a diplomatic institution, which is blocked by Russia’s vetoes and therefor paralyzed since the beginning of the Syrian war.
The international community has a shared interest in stabilizing the region, among other reasons to prevent international terrorism. But rebuilding schools, hospitals and other kinds of infrastructure would help the Syrian population, but also always the government. NGOs and civil society can be supported on small-scale projects as far as the government doesn’t interfere in their work. NGOs are the right partners to tackle the most important needs and to ensure that the measures reach all Syrians in effective ways.
Apart from that, Russia’s Role in the conflict has to be labeled clearly, so that those responsible can be taken into accountability later. All states should be interested in investigating the cruel events and bring the culprits to justice. A joined international position of military determination, diplomacy, well-aimed sanctions, concrete support of the civil society and a broad boycott of the football world cup would send the right signal to the supporters of Assad. A signal that can’t be overheard or bypassed. Only, if the military situation changes can the often-heard call for a diplomatic solution be answered.
Dirk Kunze, Head of Office Lebanon and Syria.
Johannes Mieth, Intern Lebanon and Syria.