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Ultimately, the outcome in Syria is not just about Syria

January 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

After more than two years, the conflict in Syria shows no sign of abating. If anything, the situation appears to be getting more intractable, as different foreign interests support the regime or the opposition and the death toll mounts up. Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have joined the fight on the side of the regime, adding a dangerous new element to the war. To date, more than 80,000 people have been killed, while 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge overseas.

An international conference, tentatively scheduled for later this summer, hopes to end the fighting. Planned by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the meeting will take place in Geneva. The aim is for top political leaders to agree on a “road map” for peace; a single set of guidelines for Syria’s transition. If officials can agree on these fundamentals, then they can begin the process of hashing out a detailed peace plan, including rules for a ceasefire and a political transition.

As Lavrov has said, this is a “tall order”. If the conference goes ahead, it will take place around a year after the first Geneva conference on Syria, which agreed on the need for political transition and called for a transitional governing body to be formed. Needless to say, that agreement did not result in any measurable action on the ground.

The aim of finally bringing peace to Syria is a laudable one. Yet there are several major obstacles that could potentially surface to prevent progress at the conference – or, indeed, prevent the conference happening at all. Now, as then, the main sticking point is the future of President Bashar Al-Assad, and it looks likely that this issue will be fudged at the conference. The US – in common with many other western powers – has said that Assad must stand down if there is to be any hope of peace. Yet it cannot hammer this message too hard if it wants to ensure the participation of the Syrian regime. The Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has said that “in principle”, the regime will attend. Conversely, the Syrian National Coalition leader George Sabra has ruled out taking part while civilians are being killed and “in light of Hezbollah and Iran’s militia’s invasion of Syria”. This setback has meant that the talks, originally scheduled for mid-June, will be delayed til June or August.

The fact that the rebels are unwilling to participate is not the only problem. Russia and America worked together to conceive of the talks, but major differences between the two powers remain. On Friday, Russia announced its intention to ship more weaponry to the Assad regime. The country’s MiG aircraft maker is finalising an agreement to deliver at least 10 fighter jets to Syria. The US has already criticised Russia for its plans to ship S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Of course, providing heavy weaponry to the regime at the same time as precarious peace talks hang in the balance is somewhat insensitive. “It is not helpful to have the S-300 transferred to the region while we are trying to organise this peace [conference] and create peace,” said Kerry at a press conference in Washington. However, there is also the question of America’s other interests in the region. Israel has been alarmed by the transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Kerry addressed these concerns at the same press conference: “We ask them again not to upset the balance within the region with respect to Israel. The weaponry that is being provided…has a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region and it does put Israel at risk. It is not, in our judgment, responsible because of the size of the weapons, the nature of the weapons and what it does to the region in terms of Israel’s security, so we hope that they will refrain from that in the interests of making this peace conference work.” Israel is increasingly anxious about the conflict in Syria spilling over onto its borders and, in particular, about the country’s supply of chemical weaponry falling into the hands of Hezbollah, Israel’s old adversary.

Ultimately, all of this demonstrates what we already knew: that the outcome in Syria is not just about Syria. A range of regional and international interests are at play, with Hezbollah and Iran shoring up their Shi’ite ally Assad, and Israel and America concerned that the country could fall into the hands of extremists if the regime falls. With the talks facing so many problems before a date has even been fixed, there is a big question mark over how much can be achieved. The involvement of Hezbollah has begun to turn things in Assad’s favour on the battlefield, and there is some concern that this could make him less inclined to engage in talks, let alone stand down. US officials have said that despite a “very tough week”, they remain committed to their approach of providing non-lethal aid to rebels and hosting talks. Whether those talks amount to anything remains to be seen in the coming months.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.