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The beginning of a new phase of the Syrian tragedy

June 23, 2023 at 4:20 pm

A view of the damaged area after a war plane belonging to Russia hit residential area on Idlib De-escalation Zone in Idlib, Syria on May 30, 2023 [Mohammed Said – Anadolu Agency]

Security Council Resolution 2254 has repeatedly resurfaced in political deliberations regarding Syria, whether in the statements issued by the Arab meetings in Jeddah and Amman in the context of normalisation with the Assad regime, or the American and European statements regarding the rejection of this normalisation before reaching a political solution or making tangible progress in it. This is after it was almost completely absent from the scene over the past years, during which the negotiations path in Geneva failed and was replaced by alternative paths in Astana and Sochi, under Russian leadership and  Iranian and Turkish participation, and the absence of America and Europe.

Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran acted as if the aforementioned resolution had collapsed under the weight of what they thought was a field victory achieved by the regime thanks to the Russian plan involving de-escalation zones, according to which the regime and its allies regained large parts of areas that had fallen from its control. They interpreted the American retreat from the political paths as being an agreement to the results, i.e., stabilising the Assad regime and ending the “crisis” in that way. However, the major failure to reap the fruits of the alleged “victory” put Russia and Iran and their Syrian dependent in the dilemma of not being able to move forward, at a time when they need international approval for their project through ending the American and Turkish military presence and eliminating the remnants of the military rebellion in Idlib, the Aleppo countryside, and east of the Euphrates, rebuilding what they destroyed during the war, and pumping investments into the collapsed economy. Even the goal of eliminating Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, which is on the terrorism list of all parties, could not be achieved due to the Turkish and American refusal, just as the regime was unable to contain the American-protected Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in order to remove the pretexts which Turkiye uses to continue its military campaign and force it to remove its forces from Syrian territory.

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Once again, the regime acted with the arrogance of a victor when Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries initiated normalisation with it, it was returned to the Arab League, and the head of the regime was invited to attend the summit meeting in Jeddah. It considered this move to be a concession by these countries in the face of his “steadfastness.” He even went as far as to consider his acceptance to attend a concession on his end made to these countries in the framework of the one step at a time policy. He returned to Damascus, awaiting the next step, after he taught the summit participants a lesson in not interfering in his internal affairs.

On the other hand, there are optimistic voices in the Syrian opposition public opinion that view the Arab and Turkish paths of normalisation with the regime as a positive step on the path towards turning the page on the Assad regime and starting a transitional phase within the framework of Security Council Resolution 2254, which stipulates a “political transition”, or in other words, “dragging” the regime into the trap of accepting this transition by enticing it with helping to solve its economic crisis. However, the regime is wary of any mention of a political solution, let alone a political transition.

The change in the balance of power since the regime’s return to eastern Aleppo led to a corresponding change in the position of the opposition towards the aforementioned Security Council resolution, from rejection on the grounds that it does not achieve the goals of the revolution, foremost of which is the goal of overthrowing the regime, to coexistence with it within the framework of the Geneva negotiations, leading to considering it the last lifeline saving it from total defeat.

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The fact is that today there is a need to re-read the aforementioned decision to recall the ambiguity of its content and its potential to be interpreted in more than one way, according to the needs of the various parties. This was the main reason for the disappointment of the opponents regarding it. The decision, which refers to the UN Geneva Declaration issued in 2012, provides for the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers, agreed upon by the regime and the opposition. That statement was issued at a rare moment of agreement between the international powers, which has not happened again other than in late 2015, when the Security Council resolution was agreed upon. In the beginning, the opposition viewed the fall of the regime as a matter of time that would not be long, so it was understandable that it would reject the Geneva Declaration that preserves the regime while introducing the opposition as its partner in governance. Then, it had been less than three months since the Russian military intervention, the intervention that saved the regime from its inevitable fall, according to what was widely believed in international circles, and this is what made Washington implicitly agree to the Russian intervention because it did not want the regime to fall under attacks by Islamic armed organisations, after Daesh established its state on large areas in northeastern Syria and others in Iraq, and other factions, including Salafi-jihadi factions, took control of the entire Idlib governorate in late summer of that year. This was at a time when the Jaysh Al-Islam and other Islamic factions’ missiles were falling on the capital Damascus.

Now that there has been talk again about the need to reach a political solution in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254, let us assume for the sake of argument that the regime was forced to agree to engage in a political settlement in accordance with the aforementioned resolution. What will happen?

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The regime and the opposition will have to enter direct negotiations to form a transitional governing body with full powers agreed upon by both sides. Is this possible? We have seen an example of what can happen in this context in the meetings of the Constitutional Committee, which was originally a Russian means to bypass the clause of forming the transitional governing body. They finally stopped after the start of the Russian war on Ukraine. We have the right to assume that the regime may manipulate the meetings to form the governing body for additional years, to no avail. In the meantime, the regime can, with its Russian backer, form an “opposition” tailored to which would be “acceptable” to the regime to participate in the government with it in the hope that the international powers opposed to the regime will surrender and accept any settlement of this kind.

In conclusion, even the regime and its allies supposedly accept a “political transition” in accordance with Resolution 2254, this does not mean the automatic end of the regime, as the optimists of the Arab initiative suppose. Instead, it is the beginning of a new phase of the Syrian tragedy, even if in the form of removing Bashar Al-Assad from power, which would be a significant achievement if it happens.

This article first appeared in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 21 June 2023

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