Impediments to Conflict Resolution in Syria

Read about the barriers to conflict resolution and challenges to a political settlement in Syria from the perspective of a political scientist, in this blog article by Rhea Mahanta.

In the existing realist world today, it is implicitly understood that conflicts, wherever they break out, should at the outset be addressed through domestic state apparatus through political reform, settlements, elections among other methods. In most cases, the state has procedures in place to address social cleavages and conflicts. In other times, however, domestic mechanisms fall short. Such a scenario calls for action on part of the international community to rise up to the occasion and fulfil their obligation to the world community by assisting conflicting parties to find peaceful means of coming about to an agreement. There are, however, barriers to conflict resolution in international relations owing to the forces of motion and relationships between not just nations, but even amongst non-state actors. Owing to the changing nature of conflict today, nations might not even know the enemy they are fighting against, cyber terrorism being the testimony of a weapon that is increasingly being used by entities outside of the state apparatus. This article explores the broad categories of
barriers to conflict resolution, followed by an attempt to examine the factors that have obstructed the peaceful resolution of conflict in Syria. To understand why political solutions have failed in Syria, one needs to first delve into the history of the formation of the state and understand how its demographics form an integral element of the civil war.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 during the First World War defined the borders of Iraq and Syria. The boundaries of Syria were carved by imperial cartographers without keeping practical realities in mind. It was an arbitrary division of the region into nations in a manner that disturbed the entire demographic statistics. Before the dissection of the Middle East, during the reign of the Ottoman empire, the administration was at least was respectful of social orientations of the respective provinces along their ethnic inclinations. The Ottoman rulers negotiated with local powers to govern their provinces with a fair degree of stability. Because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Alawites, who are Shias and comprise a minority
12% of the entire population of Syria, are now the ruling minority of the nation. The Middle East was divided without considering the ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliations of the people. This division was made official with the San Remo Agreement of 1920. In effect, the Westphalian system of the nation-state was imposed on the Middle East, and a majority Sunni population came to be ruled by an Alawite minority dynasty in an increasingly one-party state which further fuelled sectarian politics.

The ‘Shia crescent’ explains how demographics lie at the heart of civil war, not just in Syria but several countries in the Middle East, including as we have seen in Yemen. King Abdullah of Jordan was the first to express his concern over this phenomenon- “a new ‘crescent’ of dominant Shia movements or governments stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could emerge to alter the traditional balance of power”. The Sunnis feel threatened by the Shia Crescent precisely because it would jeopardize their authority and power if it became a reality. 3 The Shia-Sunni rift along with the conflict hinders the peace process and affects other minorities in the region as well. This explains why Iran, Russia and
China were bent against UN actions in Syria and the removal of Assad, should it further result in instability and escalation of conflict. There is fear of a bloodbath and annihilation of Alawites who are the minority if Assad is to step down.

International Intervention
Questions arise as to why the United Nations did not intervene in the Syrian civil war at an early stage, in spite of vowing never to repeat their mistake after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It would be partially incorrect, however, to assume that the UN did not intervene. In April 14th 2012, when Security Council Resolution 2042 was passed, thirty UN Military Observers were dispatched to Syria to observe the ceasefire agreement. Resolution 2043 of the Security Council authorised a Peacekeeping mission called United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) ‘to monitor a cessation of armed violence’ and to end conflict in Syria. However, neither the security forces nor the armed groups had any incentive to abide by the ceasefire. The mission was suspended within a few months as violence intensified across the country and troops had to be withdrawn.

The factors that preceded the UN member states’ stance towards Syria can be better perceived if we take into account the result of UN’s intervention in Libya. UN action in Libya was guided by a three step process: passing of a UNSC Resolution, arming of rebels, followed by military intervention. It was seen that the ulterior motive of regime change in Libya by certain parties drove the military intervention that resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi. A post-Gaddafi Libya was torn with civil war and chaos, a disintegrating society in havoc, its economy in ruins and more than half a million people displaced. It was the disenchantment after the Libyan experience that delayed international action in Syria. In March 2011, Putin criticized air strikes in Libya and remarked upon how use of force was so easily approved in international affairs, adding that “This is becoming a persistent tendency in US policy”. After the events in Libya, even China was opposed to UN decisions against the Syrian regime. In 2012, China and Russia vetoed 3 draft resolutions which placed sanctions on Syria. In August 2013 , they voted against a resolution on use-of-force, and in 2014 they vetoed a Draft Resolution referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court. America’s experience in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan had lost the popular support for another intervention. The US elections were due in 2012 and the polls indicated that a majority of US population was against military intervention in Syria. On 7 March 2012, Obama declared that it would be a mistake for US to take unilateral military action in Syria. Even if the United Nations or third party mediation does manage to bring about a peace deal, the country’s political, social and economic apparatus has to be strong enough to preserve it. The domestic parties must be capable of sustaining and self-enforcing any reforms introduced in the country. Any peacebuilding effort in order to transform conflict must be self-sustaining and enduring as mediators cannot stay perpetually to oversee it.

Proxy Wars
International relations further complicate matters as the opposite sides of the primary parties to the conflict are backed by foreign powers who have their own vested interests in the contestation. The civil war in Syria has turned into a proxy war for other nations such that neither side can gain complete military victory over the other as international parties adjust their support to keep conflicting parties from eliminating their clients. With USA backing the rebels by providing ammunitions while Russia backs Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war seems distant, especially taking into account the heated contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Qatar openly arms the rebels while Saudi Arabia does so covertly. The US, Britain and France also provided arms to the opposition forces and justify by categorizing them as ‘moderate opposition’, which, as we’ll see, is a fictitious dichotomy. In September 2015, Reuters reported that ‘a group of US trained Syrian rebels had handed over ammunition and equipment to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country, the Al-Nusra Front, in exchange for safe passage’. This was a huge setback for the US as their plan to train and equip ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels to fight IS jihadists in Syria backfired. The Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that the New Syrian Front (a rebel group) provided pick up trucks and a portion of their ammunition (almost 25% of the equipment and vehicles issued by the US-led coalition) to Al-Nusra Front. It’s a matter of concern for the stakeholders that the military arsenal provided to Syrian rebel forces might even be used against their own allies. America is anxious that their weapons in the hands of wrong groups may be used against their ally Israel. More importantly, arming rebels to fight against a regime leaves the society torn. David W. Lesch argued from the very beginning that “arming opposition forces while improving their chances in the near term, can militarize and divide a society in ways detrimental to its recovery.”, and that is what happened in Afghanistan when the Raegan administration was covertly supporting the Mujahideen against the Soviets, as in Angola, and we see history repeating itself in Syria.
An important lesson learned from the ongoing Syrian experience is that the distinction foreign powers made between ‘good’ rebels and ‘bad rebels’ is a farce. Arming rebels to fight against a regime leaves the society torn in irreparable ways. After serious examination of the direction in which the crisis was headed, President Barack Obama, on 28 th September 2015,
expressed at the United Nations General Assembly that a military solution in Syria may not work.
Military intervention by Russia added a new dimension to the conflict and added uncertainty to the future of what direction the crisis would take. Both US and Russia were now at opposite ends on what course of action to take regarding Syria. This diversion made it almost impossible to arrive at a consensus at the UN Security Council. Russia involved itself in Syria to protect its own interests and assets. 12 Each country is looking after their own national and geostrategic interests. The Russian airstrikes that were carried out on 30 September 2015 inside Syria changed the dynamics of the conflict forever and imbalanced the global power-balance. The underlying motive of Russian actions was to protect its naval base in Tartus, and it’s airbase in Latakia, which is strategically vital for Russia to facilitate
military intervention in the region.

It is also important to note that Iran was initially left out of the negotiation process despite being Russia’s biggest ally in the region. Both Iran and Israel were not invited to be a part of the peace process in spite of being important players in the Middle East.

Lack of credible commitment
As ceasefires continue to be broken, one recalls the deadly attack on a UN aid convoy last fall on 19th September 2016 when an airstrike killed a dozen humanitarian workers while they were providing relief. A week before the incident, the United States and Russia had brokered a nationwide ceasefire agreement that called for a cessation of hostilities. Upon the violation of the truce, US blamed Russia for the attack on the aid convey, arguing that Russia was responsible for ensuring that Bashar al-Assad’s forces would abide by the ceasefire agreement. Russia responded by denying its role in the attack, saying that Syrian troops were forced to respond as rebels continued to open fire.
Considering the multitude of actors involved and the unpredictable nature of conflict on the ground, peace agreements are extremely complex and difficult to implement on the ground even if they are mutually agreed upon by both parties. While an agreement is an explicit contract between parties, its manifestation into effective power sharing processes in political structures that actually result in bonafide representation is an ambitiously challenging task. To end a civil war, efforts have to be backed by a genuine intention to share power. What academics call lack of ‘political will’ is one of the biggest barriers to conflict resolution.

With the civil war that started in 2011, most international proposals for ending the Syrian war suggest a peace settlement in which all the conflicting parties negotiate to adequately share power in office. Given that war is costly for the stakeholders as well as the foreign powers backing those parties, a negotiated settlement has not been able to be achieved because of strategic obstacles to what the terms of an agreement would comprise of, in the first place. A political solution has failed so far because both sides wanted settlement completely on their own terms. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in August 2011, had assured that multiparty democracy would be introduced, the constitution would be revised, the opposition would be accommodated and granted amnesty, and that the political system would be reformed. However, the opposition were not willing to meet Assad’s terms and the war waged on. Syria is still burning because of a culmination of a series of factors- misplaced expectations from the Arab Spring, lack of political will, delayed response following disenchantment with the Libyan experience, civil war with sectarian politics and the dynamics of international relations. The opposition feels that Assad has miserably failed to acknowledge the needs and aspirations of the people he rules over. It is a challenge for the decision makers to act in ways that would eliminate these constraints and barriers. Use of mediators and facilitators to recognize these barriers and come about ways in which to
overcome them. Once again we need to harp that it is the differences in preferences of human needs, interests, and values between each party that are the key to a successful negotiation.


Contributed by Rhea Mahanta