Superimposed on the regional conflicts are the agendas of the different world powers which amplify the complexity of the crisis.
III. From regional confrontation to international conflict
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 moderate rebel groups opposed to the regime, including those backed by the Americans.It used its air force to bomb civilian areas (Aleppo in particular), not hesitating to target hospitals though denying it, and to back up the regime troops that are its allies (Hezbollah, Shiite militias, Iraqi and Afghan Hazaras). Next to its ancient base in Tartous, it opened an air base in Hmemim. This growing commitment greatly strengthens Bashar al-Assad – who was in difficulty – but fails to secure his victory.
In modifying the power relations on the ground, the Russian attacks were also the prelude to future negotiations. The marking of victories before coming back 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 Bachar Al-Assad in power – the fact that he is 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 19 of December, he declared his intention to augment his military engagement in Syria without arousing any real attention.
On March 14 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, despite aid from Iran, was losing ground. While declaring, like Barack Obama, that the only possible solution was a political one, Vladimir Poutine was clearly counting on a military solution in order to obtain the political solution it favoured. 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 doing so abandonnned the Kurdish forces of the PYD.
By the end of 2016, Russian bombardments had largely contributed to the fall of East Aleppo. Then it was Russia itself, together with Turkey, who negotiated a truce (extended to Iran during the Astana negotiations in January). Finally, Russia and the UN (via Staffan de Mistura) led negotiations in Geneva once again in February 2017, taking advantage of the US withdrawal after the election of Donald Trump.
Since then, Vladimir Putin intends to capitalize on the fall of East Aleppo, which he considers as a great victory. Unlike the Assad regime and Iran, his priority is not a total takeover of Syria, but the negotiation of a political solution. This would allow him to consolidate what he has acquired since Russia’s intervention in September 2015 at a moderate human (albeit undoubtedly underestimated) and material cost.
Putin’s aims were: (1) to stabilize the Assad regime which was about to collapse before its intervention (2) to restore Russia to its former position as a major player in the international arena (3) to break with the isolation resulting from sanctions which followed the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. The first two objectives were achieved. Putin, who is preparing for a presidential election next year, knows that any prolongation of the war in Syria is likely to be perceived badly by the Russian population (20% of Russians today think that the military engagement of their country in Syria does not make sense: see this article, US Attack on Syria Cements Kremlin’s Embrace of Assad).
Despite this political objective, Russia continued to help the regime militarily by bombing rebel positions in the region of Idlib and also in the suburbs of Damascus, southern Syria and the region of Hama.
This is what makes some Russian analysts say that the more Russia supports Assad, the more it depends on the Syrian regime. It is clear that Russia is not in a position to impose its will on the Assad regime, in particular because it runs up against Iran whose objectives are not the same. In Geneva, Russia has not obtained any concessions from Bashar Al-Assad, who does not intend to leave power after the transition period. Russia, which had been thought to be more flexible a few months ago, now seems to defend this line.
The chemical attacks by Assad in Khan Cheikhoun incontestably weakened Russia’s position. Firstly, because the Russians, who were present on the base of Chayrat, were then suspected of having dissimulated the fact that regime had maintained stocks of sarin gas there in violation of the agreement forbidding the stocking of chemical weapons. Russia was also held liable because it had signed the agreement of 2013 which decreed the destruction of all stocks of chemical weapons. Secondly, the Americn intervention on April 6, though limited, signalled that Russia would no longer be free to intervene in Syria as it wished, but must henceforth take into account the position of America.
In addition, Russia must deal with two countries it believed to have rallied to its cause: Turkey and Israel. The first had accepted to overlook the fall of East Aleppo in exchange for the intervention which prevented the Kurdish PYD from controlling the liaison between the three Kurdish “cantons” in Syria. However, the entry of the Russians in Afrin (the most eastern canton, near Aleppo) on March 21 prevented Turkey from extending its positions towards the West. Israel seemes to have concluded a tacit agreement with the Russians since the beginning of their intervention, allowing them to bomb Syrian convoys protecting the Hezbollah. However, on March 17, Damascus responded to an Israeli attack by lancing three missiles. Russia showed it’s discontent by summoning the Israeli ambassador in Moscow. One also wonders whether Turkey and Israel are not both rejoicing at the prospect of the return of the Americans in the Syrian conflict.
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 1,700 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 despite 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 both symbolic and minimal.
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). After the failure of the truce concluded on September 9 2016 under the auspices of Washington and Moscow, the United States appeared more and more withdrawn.
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 had 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 denouncing the nuclear agreement. The only time the Americans directly menaced the regime was in the region of Hasakah when Syrian aviation attacked a group of Kurds who were accompanied by American advisors.
Obama’s policy did 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 as president of the United States in November led to the marginalization of the United States in favour of Russia. The Americans stood by when East Aleppo fell, and they did not take part in the truce concluded by the Russians and the Turks, occupying only a side seat at the Astana and Geneva nogociations.
The American position under Trump seemed to :
1) Give prioirity to the battle against Deach, notably by initiating the operation to take back Raqa;
2) Let the Russians manage the Syrian crisis.
Several facts and declarations indicate that the Americans have modified their policy in Syria (under Obama they had nevertheless, if only rhetorically, maintained the idea that Al-Assad should leave). American aviation helped the Syro-Irano-Russian troops to take back Palmyra on March 2, 2017 and American troops intervened between Turks and Kurds at Manbij on March 4, 2017, preventing the advancement of the operation “Shield of the Euphrates”. In addition, at the end of March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that it was up to the Syrians to decide the fate of Al-Assad, and Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, repeated that the priority of the Americans was no longer Al-Assad’s departure.
Everything suggests that the Syrian regime interpreted this position as the acceptance by the United States of the state of affairs it had created with the help of its Iranian and Russian allies. Which explains why it went ahead with the sarin gas attacks at Khan Cheikhoun on April 4, 2017 (see this article). The regime obviously had not envisaged the indignation fomented by these attacks using forbidden arms that it was supposed to have destroyed since the agreement of September 2013, neither had it expected the Americans to lance 59 Tomahawk missiles on the base at Chayrat, where the sarin gas was stocked and from where the planes that bombarded Khan Cheikhoun had taken off.
This rapid retaliation, firm and precise, marked the end of six years of American inaction. The attack provoked divergent reactions within the administration: Ambassador Haley went so far as to speak of a need for a change of regime in Syria, but since the attacks the American position seems to be mostly one of prudence. Relations with Russia seem to have become cooler, contrary to what the Russians were expecting with Donald Trump, without forasmuch reaching a breaking point – the “deconfliction” agreement destined to prevent collisions between aircraft of the international coalition targeting the IS and Russian aircraft was re-established so rapidly that it was never actually suspended.
Today the United States must decide:
1) Whether they will attack in Syria each time there is a new violation of international norms or if the attack on Chayrat was just an isolated incident.
2) Whether as it would seem probable, they plan to return to the negotiating tables in Geneva or Astana to take an active role in the elaboration of a political solution to the Syrian conflict
3) What they plan to do regarding the zones along the Euphrates taken back from the IS. Before April 4, many signs led us to believe that these territories would be returned to the regime. Now that no longer seems so certain, as the Americans could decide to confer the administration of these zones to moderate local forces hostile to the regime.
4) Whether they decide to support the opposition rather than those brigades selected and formed by the CIA and the Pentagon.
All of these issues should be followed closely in the weeks to come.
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 2011||Syria 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.
(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
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 centre 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.
France seems to have partially convinced its Western allies to adopt the principal of “Neither Bachar nor Daech”. However, the crisis of Summer 2013 clearly showed that France lacks the means to act alone. When strikes were envisaged in August/September 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.
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 to end this conflict whose consequences in Europe are increasingly dramatic.
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 basis 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 issue of the set up 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. However, 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”.
 Orient XXI, interview with Lakhdar Brahimi, March 18, 2015