III. From regional confrontation to international conflict

Superimposed on the regional conflicts are the agendas of the different world powers which amplify the complexity of the crisis.


Source: “Understanding the Syrian situation in 5 minutes”, Le Monde, October 2015

What is Russia’s position?

Russia has been an ally of Syria since the 1950s. A first arms deal was signed between the two countries at the height of the Cold war in 1956, establishing a strong economic and political cooperation. After the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, Russian support to Syria declined but when Putin came to power, the relationship regained impetus because the Russian leader sought to assert his country’s presence in the Middle East. Moscow has supported Assad since the outbreak of the revolution, as Syria is its last ally and main client in the region. As a member of the Security Council of the UN, the Russians vetoed any punitive action against the Assad regime, paralyzing all international initiative to resolve the crisis. Taking advantage of American indifference, Moscow has organized meetings with some Damascus-approved “opponents”, in order to try to find a political solution, but they have never given any results because the members of these delegations are not representative of the opposition and lack legitimacy.

The emergence of radical groups and of the Islamic State has reinforced and facilitated Russian support to the Syrian regime, because Russia so fears radical Islam will attain the Central Asian republics : the memory of Chechnya is still fresh. Moscow has recently shown a certain lassitude towards Assad, but nevertheless remains closely attached to he who seems to incarnate the vestiges of a declining state.

In September 2015, Russian implication in the Syrian conflict crossed a new threshold when Moscow decided to bomb certain sites on the ground directly, officially as part of the war against terrorism. In reality, the majority of these attacks concern rebel groups opposed to the regime. This increased implication helped Assad considerably, as he was in difficulty, but was not sufficient enough to assure him victory.

lejdd.fr – Syrie : l’appel de détresse des humanitaires

In modifying the power relations on the ground, the Russian attacks were also the prelude to future negotiations. The marking of victories before coming to the conference table was calculated to permit the Syrian regime to impose its conditions, which proved clearly to be the case during the negotiations in Vienna which resulted in the UN resolution 2254 : the question of maintaining in power Bachar Al-Assad – responsible for general instability and the massacre of civilians and the flight of refugees – was scrupulously avoided.

Moscow also seeks now to instrumentalize the general preoccupation with the war against terrorism, at its apogee after the attacks in Paris, to rehabilitate Al-Assad and associate him with the coalition against the IS, thus exonerating the regime of its responsibility in the development of jihadism in the country.

In fact, the determination of Vladimir Putin has met no opposition. He occupies the void left by the lack of Western implication in the Syrian crisis. Thus, on the 19th of December, he declared his intention to augment his military engagement in Syria without arousing any real attention.

On March 14th 2016, Russia annonced its withdrawal from Syria. In fact, this “withdrawal” proved to be no more than a limited reduction of forces, which did not significantly diminish the overall strike force. One can deduce that this announcement was the result of political considerations, either interior – to avoid giving the Russian people the impression that Poutine was embarking on a second campaign like in Afghanistan – or exterior – to pressure Bachar Al-Assad into accepting to negotiate at “Geneva III”.

In any case, Russia is still present in Syria. There is no doubt that Russain intervention saved the regime, which, in spite of aid from Iran, was losing ground. Vladimir Poutine, while declaring, like Barack Obama, that the only possible solution was a political one, was clearly counting on a military solution in order to obtain the political solution it favored. The Russians forced the United States into accepting them as an indispensable partner in Syria.

During the summer of 2016, Vladimir Poutine and Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, sealed their reconciliation ( the falling out was over the fact that the Turks had shot down a Russian plane on mission in Syria). Russia called for the entry of Turkey in Syria and in so doing abandonnned the Kurdish forces of the PYD.

Updated on 30 November 2016

The red line and the United States

The United States and the European countries quickly deducted that in order to end the violence raging in the country, Assad must leave. In 2012, Washington and some other capitals wished to organize support to the rebellion, but groups on the ground never received the promised aid.

The inconsistency of the US position was confirmed after the use of chemical weapons by the forces of Assad near Damascus on August 23, 2013, killing 1700 civilians and marking a turning point in the conflict. Barack Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be considered the red line and that as soon as there was evidence of chemical warfare, strikes would be launched against specific targets. But as the world awaited these strikes against Assad in September 2013, the US President reversed his decision, thus conferring Assad with the “right to kill”. Late in 2014, Obama admitted publicly “The United States has no strategy for Syria”. Since the agreement to destroy chemical weapons, and in spite of UN denunciation of these crimes, Assad’s Army has continued to bomb localities with explosives containing chlorine.

See the video of an American senator denouncing his country’s strategy in Syria

This indifference is due to the refusal of the American president – elected on a promise to bring back US troops from Irak and Afghanistan – to implicate his country in the Middle East. Thus aid to the Syrian opposition is symbolic and minimal.

But if Barack Obama lacks commitment with regard to the Syrian crisis, he is nevertheless obliged to implicate his country in one of its dimensions: the development of jihadism. The execution of the American James Foley in August 2014 was a shock. The next month, the US began bombing the IS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign, however, only succeeded in reducing the territorial expansion of Daech and was not part of any particular political strategy.

At the end of 2015, confronted by the situation on the ground, which was blocked, and Russian determination to support Al-Assad, a return to the negotiating table was necessary. John Kerry realized a series of consultations and went to Moscow. The Americans reduced their demands in order to bring their position closer to that of the Russians. This permitted the creation of a calendar for a political transition, vague enough (notably with regard to the role of Bachar Al-Assad) to receive the approval of all the members of the UN Security Council. John Kerry has admitted that many doubts remain concerning the application of the agreement.

In 2016, the United States pursued its ambiguous policy in Syria. Though the Americans persist in declaring that Bachar Al-Assad cannot remain after the transition period, they continue to negotiate with the Russians, who advocate maintaining Bachar Al-Assad in power (there have been numerous meetings between Kerry and Lavrov in the past months).

The Americans also ceased delivering weapons to the armed opposition several times in order to force the political opposition to take part in “Geneva III”. In spite of incessant bombings of hospitals and of the civilian population, they persistenly refused to give the rebel combatants the Manpads which would have permitted them to defend themselves.

For the United States, the priority remains the war against Daech. In pursuing this policy, the Americans quickly made agreements of “unconflict” with the Russians in order to avoid air collisions. They also chose to support the Kurdish forces of the YPG and the “Syrian Defense Forces” (Kurds and Syrian Arabs) rather than the insurgents. This decision has been problematic as the YPG have attacked rebel groups backed by the CIA.

The other priority, only suspected until now but recently confirmed by an Obama advisor, was the Iranian nuclear agreement. This factor has always predominated the Syrian conflict for the Americans and dissuaded Obama from acting because he feared that an action in Syria overtly hostile to Al-Assad would lead to Iran leaving the negotiation tables, and presently, denouncing the nuclear agreement. The only time the Americans directly menaced the regime was this past Summer in the region of Hasakah when Syrian aviation attacked a group of Kurds who were accompanied by American advisors.

Obama’s policy does not receive unanimous support. 51 American diplomats signed a text manifesting their disagreement with the government’s action in Syria and advocating threatening the regime with military intervention. See the text here.

The election of Donald Trump poses great uncertainty on the administering of the Syrian crisis. The shocking declarations of Trump, his isolationism and his desire to be close to Poutine could mean the complete disengagement of the United States, leaving the Russians to solve the problem alone.

A duo of powers

It has become more and more apparent that the Syrian crisis is being administered by two major powers: Russia and the United States. The resumption (or not) of the negotiations has become conditional upon bilateral meetings between the representatives of the two countries. Each one seems to want to deal exclusively with the other, excluding all other actors. But this duo is profoundly unbalanced. Eager to put Russia back at the center of the geopolitical chessboard, Vladimir Poutine used the Syrian crisis to obtain a regular dialogue with the United States on a basis of equality. Obama willingly left this role to Russia, who took the lead in managing a crisis which the American president considered secondary.

In this context, what becomes the role of Europe? Of France?

The cost of non-intervention

We often hear that France’s intervention in Libya justifies non-intervention in Syria. However, a comparison of the following statistics leads one to a different conclusion:

Libya after 2011Syria after 2011
5 777 dead (1)330 381 dead (3)
8 087 refugees (2)4 088 078 refugees (4)

The Syrian conflict has resulted in 60 times more deaths and 600 times more refugees than in Libya.

Sources :
(1) The Libya Body Count Project
(2) Chiffres de UNHCR fin 2014
(3) Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, août 2015
(4) Chiffres de UNHCR août 2015

Updated on 30 April 2017

And Europe? What is France’s position? Why is France concerned by the Syrian crisis?


It has become more and more apparent that the Syrian crisis is being administered by two major powers: Russia and the United States. Each one seems to want to deal exclusively with the other, excluding all other actors. But this duo is profoundly unbalanced. Eager to put Russia back at the center of the geopolitical chessboard, Vladimir Poutine used the Syrian crisis to obtain a regular dialogue with the United States on a basis of equality. Obama willingly left this role to Russia, who took the lead in managing a crisis which the American president considered secondary.

In this context, what becomes the role of Europe? Of France?

Europe is divided concerning the position to adopt towards Syria. In the absence of a concensus, all action is paralyzed.

France therefore defines its policy alone. The country has a particular role to play and a genuine knowledge of Syria and its regime. The French have tried several times to revive the dialogue, but without success. They are conscious of the limits of this approach and of the incapacity of the regime to make reforms.

France was an important voice in the first months of the conflict. The French firmly condemned the repression of the demonstrations by Bachar Al-Assad and recognized the Syrian opposition (the Council, then the Coalition). Generally speaking, France has assumed a consistent policy of political realism, maintaining that Bachar Al-Assad is incapable of bringing political stability to the region, of ending the civil war and of defeating Daech.

The principle “Neither Bachar nor Daech”, seems to be shared by France and its occidental allies. But the crisis of the Summer of 2013 clearly showed that France lacks the means to act alone. When strikes were envisaged in August/September of 2013 as a response to chemical attacks waged by the regime, France was prepared to intervene but then renounced, forced to follow the decision of the Americans.

Maintaining a position perceived as intransigeant, plagued with the problem of terrorism, France became more and more isolated. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, and confronted by the influx of refugees, the French were forced to revise their position in order to respond to public opinion. In September 2015, they began air attacks in Syria against the IS, but they have not been able to establish a global strategy.

lexpress.fr – Intervention française en Syrie: “Les frappes contre Daech sont contreproductives”

The question of the departure of Bachar Al-Assad no longer appears to be a priority. His departure is still envisaged, but at the outcome of the process of negotiations and not before.

Today France is excluded from the settlement of the Syrian crisis. In September 2015, during the UN General Assembly, Bang Ki-Moon declared that the five nations detaining the keys to the resolution of the Syrian conflict were Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. France is not represented and has not participated in the last rounds of negotiations in Lausanne.

Considering France’s diagnostic of the Syrian crisis, its comprehension of the country, the afflux of refugees and terrorist attacks, it cannot disengage from this crisis. France must convince its partners of the urgency of ending this conflict whose consequences in Europe are increasingly dramatic.


Updated on 7 December 2016

The Arab League and the UN: why have different international mediations failed?

The radical position of the regime currently prevents the culmination of any mediation. The first plan proposed by the Arab League in November 2011 asked the regime to begin serious discussions with representatives of the opposition. In February 2012, Turkey recommended an international initiative supporting the people and not the Syrian regime by proposing a political transition. In June 2012, the member states of the Action Group on Syria (China, USA, France, United Kingdom and Russia as well as Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar) agreed on the bases for a political transition led by the Syrians : the formation of a government of national unity, the implementation of constitutional reforms and the organization of free and fair elections. This communiqué was signed at the first international conference on Syria, referred to as “Geneva I”.

A second meeting was held in Geneva in February 2014. The two Syrian delegations had agreed to use the Geneva I document as the basis for the talks, but the delegation of the opposition wished to begin negotiations by the question of the creation of the transitional government while the representatives of the regime had fixed terrorism as the sole subject of talks, thus bypassing the veritable objective of the meeting: to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. The delegation of the regime thus completely undermined the negotiations, calling its adversaries “insects” and “terrorists” guilty of “contaminating” a country which now needed to be “cleansed”. A vocabulary which recalls the darkest hours of European history, and certainly kills all possible initiatives to reach an agreement.

In October 2014, Staffan de Mistura, who had been named UN special envoy for Syria in July, suggested the creation of “battle-freeze” zones in Aleppo, the implementation of the resolutions of the UN Security Council and the deployment of international efforts against terrorism in Syria and the region. He announced the organization of new separate consultations, starting in early May, with representatives of the regime, the opposition and civil society as well as regional stakeholders. Iran, who had been excluded from the two previous two international conferences in Geneva, would be invited.

Staffan de Mistura was the third UN envoy to Syria, succeeding Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan. The latter resigned five months after his nomination after proposing a six-point plan providing for a ceasefire and a political transition. But in the absence of international support – Russia and China used their vetoes – the former Secretary General of the UN preferred to withdraw.

As for Lakhdar Brahimi, UN and Arab League envoy responsible for the file from August 2012 until May 2014, he finally renounced his mission because he felt that ” the principal protagonists inside Syria – but also outside Syria – would accept no objective other than total victory”.

[1] Orient XXI, interview with Lakhdar Brahimi , March 18, 2015

Updated on 30 April 2017
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