Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

The Current State of Syria: Challenges facing the international community

by Akash Radia

A recent article from the BBC indicated the vast amounts of Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon. The article quotes that Lebanon is currently hosting almost “a million refugees…which means that one in four people in the country are Syrian.” Lebanon holds deep history with Syria, with the latter having occupied the former from 1976 until 2005. Militant group Hezbollah see themselves as fighting alongside President Assad – a worrying thought for the international community currently trying to stem the conflict through UN peace talks, Geneva II.

Border Relations: Syrian refugees make their way to the Lebanese-Syrian border (darkroom.baltimoresun.com)

Border Relations: Syrian refugees make their way to the Lebanese-Syrian border (darkroom.baltimoresun.com)

The continuing failure of the peace talks, the spill-over effect, and the control of chemical weapons within Syria was addressed this Tuesday at a conference held by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). Speakers Andrew J. Tabler (Senior Fellow – The Washington Institute), Nacira Boulehouat (Deputy Head of Middle East Division – European External Action Service), and Richard Stanforth (Regional Policy Officer – Oxfam Great Britain) represented a US, European, and global humanitarian perspective in a lively debate titled “A Divided Syria: Next steps for the International Community.” Below are the challenges addressed by the panelists.

Spilling Over. Spilling Into.

Syria is more than a divided country with Assad on one side and the opposition on the other. The opposition itself consists of various factions, ranging from the Kurdish Supreme Committee to Islamic groups associated with Al-Qaeda. But beyond the people behind the conflict, the physical geography creates unique problems unseen in conflicts arising from the Arab Spring. Tabler, who spent several years in Syria and around the Middle East, indicated the vast amount of space that exists away from urban centers. This leaves much of the land ungoverned and susceptible to extremist groups. So when spill-over is addressed, extremist susceptibility of refugees arriving in Lebanon are not constrained to Beirut. There is indeed a danger of the spill from neighboring countries inundating power vacuums within Syria itself.

A Call To Arms: Al-Qaeda affiliated groups march through the Syrian town of Tel Abyad (pri.org)

A Call To Arms: Al-Qaeda affiliated groups march through the Syrian town of Tel Abyad (pri.org)

Within the Middle East many governments struggle with a lack of control in the outer regions of the country. Within Syria, Al-Qaeda’s presence can be traced to such a phenomenon. As they existed in Iraq, the lack of strong borders lead to a presence of the group in ungovernable areas.

It is important to note that a vast, desolate land, also leads to difficulties in humanitarian assistance. Stanforth noted that unlike in Africa or Latin America, digging a well to access water in such areas is not possible. Sulfur in the water supply remains of paramount concern with such a process, leaving many effected by the conflict without access to basic supplies. Stanforth estimated 9.5 million people, i.e. more than twice the current population of Lebanon, are still in dire need of assistance.

Geneva II: Too Little.

Recent peace talks were plagued with doubt from the onset. Iran’s invitation and subsequent withdrawal by the United Nations hindered the United State’s cooperation. An issue further exacerbated by US accusations that Russia continues to supply weapons to Assad. Furthermore, the lack of cooperation between the current regime and the opposition – with Assad recently branding all opposition as terrorists – has left Geneva II talks in a fragile state.

Tabler commented how surprising it was that the opposition had organized as well as they had for the talks. Initial failure to recognize the opposition – especially if they had such a linear structure as they have now, he mentioned – would have created the opportunity for Assad to counter with relative ease in the beginning of the conflict. Still Boulehouat from the EEAS reiterated the EU’s commitment to the negotiation process. Military action is not an option, she commented, whilst further emphasizing immediate needs that have yet to be addressed in the Geneva II talks such as exchange of prisoners and humanitarian aid. Such a process seems hinged upon Assad’s desire to compromise. His failure not to means the fault lies with the regime.

Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Geneva II peace talks (america.aljazeera.com)

Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Geneva II peace talks (america.aljazeera.com)

Assad is now in the position where he can slant negotiations that favor the regime. Tabler noted how he had pegged any reconciliation to an electoral campaign that he would run in. Elections under Assad, Tabler continued, are corrupt and “a joke.” Essentially, Assad knows he is in a better position than he has been in the past. The scale of weaponry available leaves the opposition with little hope of a military victory. The Syrian regime is third in use of ballistic missiles in a conflict. But it is chemical weapons that remain the key threat in Assad’s arsenal, and talks to constrain and destroy them are as complicated as any aspect of the conflict.

Resolution 2118 and its Implications

Unanimously adopted, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118 calls on Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. ISIS recently published a paper that illustrated the difficulty of destroying such weaponry during a conflict. The truth is, Syria cannot destroy its chemical weapons. Syria do not have the capacity to carry out such a complicated mission. Perhaps this leaves Assad with no option, or perhaps it is another example of his stubbornness, but the regime recently refused to destroy up to 12 sites containing chemical weapons.

Again, the international community – and the general public – are forced to contend with the appalling state of humanitarian affairs in the country. 2118 recognizes Syria’s sovereignty, and in the spirit of that and the EU’s common position on Arms, the first step to resolving the conflict may lie in stopping the supply of weapons to both sides.

A resolution of the conflict is nowhere closer than it was at the beginning of Geneva II. Although bringing both sides to the table has been seen as a step in the right direction, it is clear that  power is currently skewed in favor of Assad. His unwillingness to negotiate and the tensions rising from within the international community to address this, leave considerations about “next steps” as a moot point. The steps have remained the same and stagnation is now the most worrying thought, not solely for ending armed conflict, but assisting in humanitarian crises as well.

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