Describing critical turning points in the Syrian Conflict, implies giving a very concise survey of some of its most important developments. Of course, there are many more critical turning points than can be described in this short article.
At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution (March 2011), the wall of silence and fear was broken for the first time among large sections of the Syrian population, as they rose and demonstrated massively against the Syrian regime. It was a miracle that the demonstrations generally remained so peaceful for a relatively long time, when taking into consideration the severe repression and atrocities committed by the regime against the peaceful demonstrators. Concurrently with the peaceful demonstrations, however, there was already armed anti-regime violence during the early stages of the revolution, probably committed from the ‘side lines’ by radical Islamists and others.
Many officers and soldiers started to defect, and constituted military opposition groups, first small, but later on a larger scale, big enough to threaten the regime.
By June 2011 violence and counterviolence had increased to such an extent that any peaceful discussions and dialogue between regime and opposition
had become extremely difficult. At this point, the Syrian Revolution had already, to some extent, become overshadowed by radical Islamists. They saw the so-called Arab Spring developments in the region as an excellent opportunity to present themselves as viable alternatives in their efforts to spread the rule of Islam, and many wanted to settle accounts with the regime that earlier had severely suppressed them.
The solidarity visits of US ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier to the opposition movement in Hama in July 2011, meant the end of the possibility for the United States and France or other countries to play any role as mediator in the conflict. Their visits rather created false hopes among the opposition that essential Western support was forthcoming – but in the end it turned out not to be given as had been expected or suggested.
US President Obama’s demand that President al-Asad should step aside, created an almost irreversible momentum. Many other countries followed suit and demanded the same, without having the intention, will, or capacity to militarily force al-Asad and his regime to do so. Most countries which had turned against the regime, claimed they wanted a political solution. In reality, however, these countries only wanted to consider a solution which implied regime change. It was unrealistic, however, to expect the regime to be prepared to voluntarily give up its own position, and for President Bashar al-Asad to be willing to sign his own death warrant. Various countries created false expectations among the Syrian opposition groups that military intervention was forthcoming, which it was not.
By way of an alternative, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, started to supply huge quantities of financial and military aid to the military opposition groups, but their support was channelled to their respective favourites. Their lack of efficient coordination caused their help to be insufficient to help the opposition in winning the war. Their success in endangering the regime’s military position triggered a large-scale Russian military intervention in September 2015 and onwards, on top of the military support of Iran and Lebanese Hizballah, who all wanted to protect their strategic ally to stay in power. All this, strengthened Russia’s position considerably.
The Geneva Communiqué, adopted on 30 June 2012 by the Action Group for Syria, and endorsed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, became a cornerstone for any future negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition. The Geneva Communiqué described a number of principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led transition. One of the most important guidelines dealt with a political transition that should be made possible through the establishment of a transitional governing body which was to establish a neutral environment in which the transition could take place. The transitional governing body was to exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the Syrian government, the opposition and ‘other groups’ and was to be formed on the basis of mutual consent. Although the Geneva Communiqué did not mention anything about the role of the Syrian president, the position of Bashar al-Asad became a principal point of dispute. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that President al-Asad could not take part in such a transitional governing body, whereas Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied this. The Syrian opposition, in general, strongly rejected any role for President al-Asad in the ‘transitional period’. For the Syrian regime itself it was President al-Asad who was to decide on such issues, not the opposition, nor foreign countries. The fixation on the departure of al-Asad constituted a serious obstacle in finding a solution to the conflict, the more so as he was in power in most of the country.
A great number of countries officially recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition. They supported its demand that there was not to be any future role for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his supporters with blood on their hands, and that they had to be brought before justice. Most Western and Arab countries supported these demands, without providing the means to implement them. Thereby these demands became little more than declaratory policies, because no real will existed for any direct Western and Arab military intervention in Syria. Such intervention was even officially rejected in the United States and the United Kingdom after parliamentary discussions. The direct foreign military threat against the regime was thereby eliminated.
The war in Syria clearly developed into a war by proxy, with various countries (particularly the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) interfering in the internal affairs of Syria by supporting different armed and other opposition groups. Russia and Iran wanted to militarily maintain their strategic interests in Syria and did not want to lose their Syrian ally.
After the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria in 2013, attention to the fight against the Syrian regime shifted to the fight against IS. Because of the IS terrorist threats in Western countries this came to be viewed with greater priority. The support for the direct struggle against the regime thereby gradually diminished.
As a result, the opposition felt abandoned and betrayed by Western countries, but was left with few, if any, alternatives. With Western countries providing the opposition with insufficient support, the chances for Russia and Iran to get the upper hand increased. The Russian military intervention that started in September 2015 made the prospects for the opposition even worse. Providing more intensive foreign support to the military opposition forces led to an intensification and prolongation of the war, but not enough for a defeat of the regime.
The ability to achieve peace in Syria does not only depend on the Syrians themselves, but also on the various countries involved in the war by proxy, and whether or not they are prepared to give priority to ending the Syrian conflict above their rival regional ambitions. Such a turning point has not yet been reached, and the prospects for real peace in Syria are still far away, even if the Syrian regime would militarily win the war.
[Other roundtable submissions can be found here.]