by Elena Marda
The events in Brussels about the Syrian conflict are numerous. The event organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States consisted in a discussion between Professor Eyal Zisser Dean at Tel Aviv University, Ambassador Marc Pierini, Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe, and was moderated by Sir Michael Leigh, Senior Advisor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. During the discussion one question kept coming back: which of the involved parties will define the course of the battle? And most importantly, how?
The unique characteristics of the conflict, the limited action that accompanies the EU and the US, the risk of spill-over effects in the region and the posture of different actors are creating a complicated environment for conflict management. The following factors were identified as the main reasons for the existing deadlock in Syria:
1) Fragmentation – The rebels do not have a unified command structure, while the presence of local militias is further shattering their organisation. In addition, by failing to reach the population in big cities, the conflict is restrained to a ‘peasant revolt’ as described by Professor Zisser. It is only recently that, groups other than the Islamist militias,started organising civilian administration (hospitals, food, and distribution of aid) in the liberated areas of the country.
2) Indifference – The Assad family has already demonstrated that it is primarily concerned about only that part of the country which represents for them the centre of power; Damascus, the coast line and the zone in-between. Moreover, the Syrian bureaucracy is still functioning and the minority communities retain their support for the regime.
3) Security risks – The US administration, having taken into consideration the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, are reluctant to intervene as the actual situation on the ground is uncertain.
The two speakers agreed on the key player of the conflict: Russia. They shattered any illusions that Russia’s position has anything to do with Syria per se, and they linked its current posture to the UNSC Resolution on Libya and its pursuit to re-establish the Russian state in the new world order. According to Ambassador Pierini neither Iran, nor Hezbollah suffice to help the Syrian regime to win the battle.
Finally they gave only little hope that the lifting of the arms embargo would be a game changer. The balance of power is extremely hard to change without a shift in the Kremlin’s position. The only way that this could be achieved is if Russian interests can be served by a different actor than Assad. Moreover, providing sophisticated weapons would require the US to send its own staff to assist the rebels, something that is highly unlikely to happen, at least for the time being.
Finally the participants made recommendations to the US and the EU. Ambassador Pierini warned that any kind of intervention by the western community would be considered as an aggression towards Russia. He suggested that enhancing the humanitarian assistance provided at the local level will be beneficial in the long term. Professor Zisser presented two different options; the western states should either acknowledge their defeat and stop supporting opposition forces, or they should increase their level of implication and intervene in a pragmatic way.
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