In the absence of progress on the negotiating track of the Syrian crisis, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, suggested during his recent briefing to the Security Council to exploit the current period of relative calm at the military level and the holding of the influential countries for exploratory consultations that result in confidence-building measures that pave the way for a political solution. But this proposition will most likely not achieve any progress. Instead, these countries can be encouraged to agree on a single issue at the outset that will gradually resolve the entire crisis.
Since its beginning in 2011, the Syrian conflict has included a series of crises, and the confrontations were divided into several fronts, including military operations between the regime and the armed opposition, confrontations between the US-led Global Coalition forces and ISIS, and confrontations between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, as well as Israeli raids on Iranian and Syrian military sites. Many regional and international powers also intervened in the conflict, which turned Syria into an arena for many conflicting agendas and interests. After ten years of confrontations, the map of forces in Syria changed, and the regime controlled about 70% of the Syrian territory, while the remaining areas were divided between Turkey, the Kurds, the United States, the armed opposition, and terrorist organizations.
Despite the recent confrontations in the southwest and northwest of Syria, it can be said that the various fronts have witnessed relative calm and a decline in military escalation since the signing of the agreement reached by Russia and Turkey on the situation in the city of Idlib in March 2020. Some analyzes show that the current state of calm is a result of the satisfaction of the actors after achieving their goals, in relative terms, until further notice. The Syrian regime is currently content with the amount of land it has recovered from the armed factions, bearing in mind the economic and military cost of trying to retake other areas. Moreover, Russia and Iran are also content with the success they have achieved in maintaining the Syrian regime and consolidating the influence and interests of both in the region. While Turkey does not want military confrontations in northern Syria that will lead to new waves of refugees to its territory, which already hosts more than four million Syrian citizens. It has also reached a relatively acceptable formula for dealing with the dangers of the Kurdish forces’ presence on its southern border. From time to time, Israel launches raids on areas it believes belong to Iran with the aim of undermining Iran’s military capabilities inside Syria, which can be used against it in any possible confrontation between the two countries.
Although many trends suggest that the situation will remain as it is during the coming period without any change, experts estimate that this fragile and temporary consensus cannot be relied upon. The Syrian crisis is complex and intertwined with many other files in the region, and therefore the possibility for something to take place that could lead to a flare-up of the situation and the occurrence of conflict on a large scale remains highly present. In this sense, this period of relative calm encouraged many parties to submit proposals to bridge the gap in the attitudes of regional and international powers, and to call them to adopt consensual policies to end the human suffering of the Syrian people.
The implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015 and the Declaration of Geneva is the focus of the work of the UN envoy by facilitating an intra-Syrian political solution to the conflict. The resolution calls for a timetable for the political transition process and the establishment of a non-sectarian regime, and a timetable for drafting a new constitution, followed by holding free and fair elections that include all Syrians at home and abroad under the supervision of the United Nations. However, the UN was unable to make significant progress on these tracks during the last period, so the political situation remained stagnant. In fact, the committee concerned with drafting the constitution, which was formed of 150 representatives of the regime, the opposition, and civil society, did not reach any significant progress after five meetings. Despite the UN envoy’s attempts to persuade the parties to hold a sixth round, most observers do not expect that this path will lead to anything tangible as a result of the exchange of accusations between the two sides on the one hand, and the differing visions of Russia and Western countries on the other. Accordingly, the UN finds itself unable to implement the mandate entrusted to it according to the international reference due to the conflicting interests of the influential countries in the issue.
Based on the above, and in realization that the success of the political process in Syria and the implementation of the Resolution 2254 depends primarily on the consensus of the regional and international actors in Syria. In his last briefing to the Security Council on June 25, 2021, Pedersen put forward a vision based on inviting the actors to “Exploratory Discussions,” through which it is possible to agree on a set of gradual steps aimed at improving the lives of Syrians and achieving regional stability, based on the conviction that these steps can pave the way towards political talks that lead to a comprehensive settlement.
It can be said that Pedersen’s proposal – although it is theoretically correct and agrees with the rules of gradual confidence – building measures in resolving conflicts – but its application to the Syrian crisis will not lead to any progress due to the nature of the contentious issues among the active countries, and their inability to resolve through measures of trust building. For example, there is no perception among the active countries in Syria so far about the future of the city of Idlib, or the right of the Syrian regime to restore it, or to fight terrorist groups there. There is also no agreement on the future of the various armed factions that have been mobilized in it as a safe zone including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS-formerly al-Nusra Front), which was listed on the terrorist group by the UN Security Council, the US, Russia and Turkey.
Rather, some writings began calling on the US administration to reconsider the classification of the HTS as a terrorist organization and to try to accommodate it politically under certain conditions to benefit from its presence on the ground in Idlib. Promoters of this idea believe that the organization, after conducting internal reviews, has moved away from the Salafi-jihadi ideology, so that changing its classification can facilitate the provision of aid to the residents of Idlib in light of the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the maintenance of the ceasefire, and it can also facilitate a political dialogue with the organization about the future of the city. Of course, this approach – if implemented – will increase the already raging disagreement about how to deal with the organization. In fact, Turkey – which has designated the HTS as a terrorist organization – will reject any attempt to restore the Syrian regime to Idlib due to the resulting waves of migration and the flight of armed terrorist groups to several other countries.
In addition to the Idlib file, other files are added, such as the future of the Kurdish forces, the situation of the Kurds in northern Syria, the future of the presence of the Turkish forces, the American role in Syria, the impact of the Iranian military presence on Israel, the feasibility of economic sanctions on Syria, the future of the Syrian regime and the survival of President Bashar al-Assad in power, reconstruction deals, and many other controversial files.
Moreover, the differences are not only between the countries supporting the Syrian regime and those opposing it, but there are also differences between countries in the same row, as there are reports of differences between Russia and Iran, for example, regarding contracts to explore for natural resources, economic deals, their role in institutions, and areas of influence in Syria, including the dispute over the presence of Iranian forces in areas on the border with Israel, such as Daraa and Qunaitra.
Based on the aforementioned, it can be argued that the international and regional powers will not be able to reach confidence-building measures that win the approval of all the parties to the crisis, and that it is not feasible to spend this period in holding exploratory talks that will not achieve any progress as a result of the nature of the issues.
Some analysts have argued that a solution to the Syrian crisis will only be reached through direct US-Russian negotiations in which many files are discussed in different regions, so that the solution to the Syrian crisis is within the framework of a comprehensive deal between the two superpowers over areas of influence around the world.
With the difficulty of achieving this scenario and the absence of another to support it, other alternatives can be considered, including calling on the influential parties – especially the United States and Russia – to start discussing only one file at the current stage, and let the Idlib file and the future of the armed factions for the time being, so that in the event of reaching a consensus the other files can be gradually solved.
There is no doubt that international consensus on this file will spare the region many complications, and will lead to the exclusion of the scenario of the Syrian regime’s use of military force to restore the city under the cover of a Security Council resolution that urges countries to fight terrorism and classifies the HTS as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, the presence of an international consensus on Idlib will encourage the regime to take positive steps on the political track, and thus resolve other issues such as economic sanctions and reconstruction.
Until any progress is made in this file, the most that can be achieved in the Syrian crisis is to maintain the current calm, not to allow the level of violence to escalate again, and to take advantage of that period to take steps to provide more humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.