Let me tell you why I think a peaceful resolution in Syria is way, way off and that the civil war there may outrun the conflict in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
There I was, some time ago, before the Geneva 2 round of talks on Syria, taking part in a debate with leading figures from Syrian opposition factions and pro-government supporters, who were screaming at each other and laying down their terms for any possible solution, as in: You accept my terms or the deal is off.
And when I was given the chance to speak, I told them that they should be preparing for Geneva 3, 4 and 5 and so on, as this was not going to get any better the way things stood. And all of a sudden everyone started talking at once, pointing out that what I said was “provocative” and “controversial”, as if I didn’t state the obvious – that the solution to the conflict in Syria would probably take years, if not decades, to resolve.
Meanwhile, as the world is transfixed by the crisis in Ukraine that still has the potential to grow into a regional conflict, somehow it seems to have forgotten that a no less dangerous conflict continues in Syria, where the fighting has not really subsided, the flow of arms into the country has not stopped, the refugee crisis has not been eased and the prospect of the spread of violence across the region remains just as great as before.
As the world is transfixed by the crisis in Ukraine that still has the potential to grow into a regional conflict, somehow everyone seems to have forgotten that a no less dangerous conflict continues in Syria, where the fighting has not really subsided…
At the moment, Syria is mostly mentioned by Russia and its allies, in public at least, in the context of examples of the West meddling in other people’s affairs, like it is currently happening in Ukraine, as Moscow views it, while the West prefers not to mention Syria at all.
But behind the scenes, things are actually heating up, in and around Syria, as far as Moscow is concerned. The US and Saudi Arabia have finally patched up their differences, which had opened up after the deal on the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenals was struck last year, spearheaded by Russia and the US.
A renewed friendship has blossomed between Washington and Riyadh, with the hawks in the corridors of power in the American capital resuming their calls for a “military solution” to the conflict in Syria and the Saudis pressing for more support for the anti-Assad rebels. Especially as next month sees the deadline for the final removal and destruction of the last stocks of the Syrian chemical weapons, this opens the way for the West to harden its position, at least when it comes to rhetoric.
By then, as Russian analysts expect, the row over Crimea will be reduced to a simmering disagreement and the new Ukrainian interim regime will become less aggressive, considering the approaching presidential elections in May. So the spotlight will move to Syria again, with an expected intensifying of fighting on the ground, even though it never really ceased, although the general picture has changed this year with some factions of the anti-government forces striking deals with Assad’s military and some rebel groups falling out with each other and fighting for control.
Russian analysts say that so long as the current level of disunity among the rebels continues, Bashar al-Assad’s regime should not worry all that much.
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The thinking in the Kremlin at the moment is that US President Barack Obama has neither the will nor the desire to succumb to the demands of the neo-cons in Washington and the hard-liners in Riyadh to use military force against al- Assad regime.
American mid-term elections are approaching and the last thing Obama needs is to lose control over the Senate, with the American public weary of any military involvement abroad.
In a longer perspective, Kremlin advisers are relatively confident that Obama would not engage in any foreign adventure, up to the very end of his second term, out of fear of leaving a pretty unimpressive legacy which has already been diminished due to his domestic setbacks and falling popularity.
Events in Ukraine, although damaging to Russian regional interests, have convinced President Vladimir Putin that when push comes to shove, the Obama Administration prefers not to back its tough talk with action.
One of the weakest points in the West’s policy towards Syria, as seen by Moscow, is the fact that out of around 75,000 armed rebels in the country, nearly 25,000 belong to extremist groups, including al-Qaeda. What is even more worrying for some Western governments, more than 1,000 – some even say as much as 2,000 – of these are violent extremist groups and “converts” from Western Europe, who may – at some point – come back to their respective countries and launch their own local “armed struggles”.
When President Obama spoke about the need to support “moderate opposition” in Syria, during his meeting with French President Francois Hollande last month in Washington, privately his own officials were acknowledging that, on many occasions, the line between moderate and radical was a very thin one.
Russian officials pick on this point, just as they stress that a large proportion of extremists in Syria have actually arrived from Libya, a country “liberated” by the West which is now resembling a lawless land where al-Qaeda fighters have training camps.
Although the overall signs for the resolution of the Syrian conflict is looking very bleak, Russia will be emboldened by its success over Crimea and the inability of the West to take any drastic steps to impose its will.
This will directly impact the situation around Syria, with Moscow continuing its support for President Assad and his government, as the opposition remains fragmented and divided, with parts of it falling out between themselves.
And if you consider that one man’s stalemate is another man’s opportunity, the future might not be so bleak for Assad and his people. Especially as substantial defections and desertions in the Syrian government armed forces have not materialised, as was hoped in Washington, and popular support for the rebels has been on the wane recently.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.