Interview: CGSRS’ Hirah Azhar on the Syrian Civil War


Geopoliticalmonitor sits down with Hirah Azhar from the Centre for Geopolitics Security in Realism Studies (CGSRS) to discuss the Syrian civil war.


What are the prospects of the current UN-brokered peace talks?

Despite the UN’s claims that the talks have been merely ‘paused’ (they are scheduled to resume on February 25), the negotiations in Geneva are largely considered to have failed before even starting. It is not difficult to understand why when the Syrian government and Russia’s aerial bombardment of largely rebel-held areas continued even when the talks had officially begun. If anything, air strikes on rebel-held areas in the northwest of the country (most prominently in Aleppo) escalated right before the talks. As a result, the High National Committee (HNC), an opposition coalition of 34 groups, withdrew from the negotiations on the third day of the talks calling the government’s refusal to commit to a ceasefire unacceptable. The talks have now ended on a sour note, with both sides blaming the other for the suspension of negotiations.

The fact that all peace negotiations regarding Syria to date have ended in much the same way indicates deeper underlying issues with the conflict and the negotiation process. At its very core, this failure has a great deal to do with both the large number of actors involved in the conflict – Syrian and international – and the refusal to commit to a ceasefire. It is unlikely that future negotiations will bear much fruit until both sides can stop the exchange of firepower and all relevant parties are included in any talks. At the same time, international actors with vested interests (such as Russia, Iran or Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) must not be allowed to orchestrate the negotiations. For example, the recent talks in Vienna in October-November 2015 (that precipitated UN Resolution 2254 and the Geneva talks), concerning the future of Bashar al-Assad, did not include a single Syrian representative from either side. Moreover, they witnessed tensions between both Saudi Arabia and Iran on the one hand and the United States and Russia on the other regarding Assad’s future role. Other peace initiatives since the start of the conflict have been suspended largely because neither side has committed to the ceasefire.

Nevertheless, it is likely that further efforts will be made to continue this UN-brokered negotiation process. Adopted after a unanimous vote in December 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 called for an end to indiscriminate bombing of civilians and measures to implement a nationwide ceasefire. The resolution, which essentially mandated the Geneva negotiations, requires an end to airstrikes and the provision of humanitarian relief to civilians.


What would a negotiated settlement need to contain to have a good chance at success?

Any negotiated settlement to end a protracted conflict like the Syrian civil war will require – at the very least – a combination of sustainable political compromise and complete military ceasefire. Any peacemaking initiative needs to start by understanding the motivations that drive both sides. In purely black and white terms: while Assad’s regime seeks to remain in power and retain control of the country, the opposition demands Assad’s removal. However, there are a number of issues that further complicate this dilemma.

First, the opposition is not a coherent, unified entity and consists of hundreds of armed groups that are mutually distrustful and often at odds with each other. While members of the ‘moderate opposition’ demand a political transition post-Assad to a just and stable democracy, the many Islamist groups inside Syria seek to turn it into an Islamic state. Moreover, the groups compete not just for territory and the spoils of war, but also for the attention of Western and Gulf states from whom they receive arms, funds, and training.

Second, the growing prowess and presence of Islamist terrorist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra) has successfully introduced a third and destructive actor into the conflict. Any settlement between the two sides will need to adopt a strategy to militarily defeat these groups and retake the territory lost to them.

Third, this is no longer just a political conflict but one that has quickly transitioned into a frenzied sectarian one. The fight is predominantly between the country’s majority population of Sunnis and the minority Alawite population whose support Assad enjoys. Syria is also home to Shia, Christian and Druze minorities as well as a significant Kurdish population and they are all stakeholders in the conflict.

Lastly, the conflict is no longer being fought just between Syrians, but has managed to polarize world powers. Not only has it turned into a proxy war between regional powers (Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon on one side and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the other); Western governments have sided with the rebels while Russia is firmly allied with Assad’s regime and both have become increasingly more invested in the conflict over the years.

Any negotiations will need to resolve all these complications before a settlement can be reached. As the past five years have shown, neither side is willing to accept either military or political defeat and will continue using military means to achieve their objectives. A political compromise would therefore require both sides to accede some of their conditions for a final settlement and this can only be accomplished when military defeat no longer remains an option and a ceasefire can be properly enforced.

“a ceasefire in a conflict such as this is almost impossible to enforce.”

But therein lies another dilemma because a ceasefire in a conflict such as this is almost impossible to enforce. Protracted civil conflicts have historically taken decades to resolve (such as in Sri Lanka or Colombia) because of the mutual lack of trust and the power asymmetry that provides the state with both an inflated sense of power and the rebels with the motivation to continue military efforts until the state’s resources are exhausted. In the Syrian case, there is no trust on either side and at present, and no strong and neutral external actor that can impose the ceasefire. Of course, sending an international peacekeeping force is an option, although it will probably be greatly compromised by the presence of terrorist groups inside the country. The first step for a settlement is therefore the need to bring together both sides against the common threat of Islamist terrorism and persuade them to commit to a ceasefire with each other.


What evidence is there of a ‘moderate opposition’ on the ground in Syria?

Syria’s opposition consists of a large and very diverse set of actors with varying political objectives and military strategies. Indeed, their sole unifying factor is opposition to Assad’s regime although their ultimate vision for Syria and the wider region are vastly different. By definition, ‘moderate opposition’ refers to those groups of Syrians who are fundamentally opposed to Assad’s regime and seek a political transition to a just and democratic system but who do not share the Islamist objectives of the Sunni groups, let alone ISIS or al-Nusra. Indeed, the very nature of this moderate opposition is dominated by ethnic, religious, and political pluralism.

The continued presence of a ‘moderate opposition’ on the ground in Syria is very difficult to prove. As more and more groups have cropped up, the opposition coalition has become fractious, with groups sharing mutual hostility and resentment. It is undeniable that sectarian strife drives the conflict so there is also immense overlap with Islamist groups and rapidly shifting allegiances. It is, in fact, rather difficult to correctly determine where a group’s or even individual fighter’s loyalties lie at any given moment. Moreover, as the war has progressed and funds have slowly dried up, money has played a bigger role in determining which group an individual joins and how groups may shift their short-term objectives. The influx of foreign fighters, for instance, has coincided with the increasing strength of Islamist groups and the dwindling numbers of the moderate opposition.

For example, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been at the forefront of Syria’s moderate opposition from the very start of the conflict. Consisting mostly of deserters from the Syrian army, the group has frequently been accused of colluding with Islamist groups against the Syrian army. In addition, FSA fighters have also increasingly defected to Islamist groups that offer better pay and conditions, most crucially to the well-resourced al-Nusra. At the same time, the supply of arms, training and funds to such so-called ‘moderate’ armed groups by Western and Gulf states has occasionally wound up in the hands of terrorist groups.

As a result, any estimate of how much of a moderate opposition is currently present in Syria is just that – an estimate. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that no moderate opposition remains in the country because it allows for an easy military solution to the conflict. As the UN-brokered talks in Geneva indicate, however, there are still key groups (such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition) that continue to publicly identify as members of the moderate opposition. It is therefore likely that even if these groups overlap or collude with Islamist or even terrorist organizations in the short term, their original objectives – Assad’s removal and the transition to a functioning democracy – remain intact.


What is Russia hoping to achieve by intervening in Syria?

The Russian narrative claims that tackling and defeating the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is the reason for its military intervention in Syria. Addressing the General Assembly in his UN speech on September 28, 2015 – two days before the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria – Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an international coalition to militarily defeat the Islamic State. The rationale for this policy, in rhetoric at least, is the domestic threat that ISIS poses within Russia. An estimated 7,000 foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union have reportedly joined ISIS and declared their own governorate in the North Caucasus region within the Russian Federation. Putin has also repeatedly referenced Russia’s ‘moral obligation’, as a world power, to combat the threat of ISIS and terrorism.

In reality, there is a significant disconnect between the Russian narrative and its actions on the ground, which consist of air strikes against rebels and rebel-held areas to assist Syrian government forces. There are two reasons for this. First, Russia has historically been a key ally of the Assad regime and this military intervention allows Putin to maintain Russia’s foothold in the Middle East and present a post-Ukraine show of strength as a key world power. Second, it provides Russia with the chance to undermine US influence in the area, an act that will yield undeniable strategic, diplomatic, and economic benefits. Indeed, the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict and the EU’s preoccupation with refugees serves Russian interests perfectly. The strategy has worked more than anyone had initially expected, with Russia playing a key role in all negotiations and as a result, providing the Assad regime with some much-needed validation. It is now improbable that future decisions about Syria, and perhaps even the rest of the region, will not include Russian input.


In your opinion, are there limits to Russia’s support of the Assad regime?

At the present moment, Russia is deeply invested into its support for the Assad regime – both politically and militarily. Though there has been a discernible shift in Russia’s stance on the conflict recently, indicating a growing willingness to engage in multilateral talks, I believe that it is unlikely that Putin will willingly pull back or limit support for the Assad regime in the near future. However, there are a number of scenarios that may precipitate a shift in Russian policy.

First, after the failure of the peace talks in Geneva amid Russia’s continued bombardment of opposition forces in Syria, the United States may decide to adopt a more assertive and challenging position vis-à-vis Russia’s military support for the Assad regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement after the postponement of the talks claimed that the “continued assault by Syrian regime forces – enabled by Russian air strikes…have clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one”. Indeed, there has been growing exasperation in the United States regarding Russia’s uninhibited support for Assad’s regime, particularly since the start of Russian air strikes in September 2015. President Obama’s decision to work with Russia on negotiating a peaceful political settlement to the conflict is increasingly being seen within the country as a mistake.

Similarly, as the EU finds itself in the unenviable position of receiving an increasingly heavy influx of Syrian refugees across its borders, growing frustration with Russia’s air strikes is likely to translate into concrete policy decisions sooner rather than later. However, this is only likely if the US applies pressure to review current EU relations with Russia. As the Ukraine crisis and resultant sanctions against Russia have shown, the EU is reluctant to follow through with its own policy decisions, often taken in tandem with the US. A related consideration is with regards to Turkey, which is a prominent NATO member as well as a strong supporter of the rebels and one of the conflict’s main external actors. It is also one of the EU’s key allies in managing the refugee crisis, and growing Turkish frustration with Russian warplanes in Turkey’s airspace may be the catalyst for a stronger European stance on Russia.

“Russia does not have a particularly successful track record of military interventions outside of the former Soviet Union.”

Third and perhaps most importantly, it is worth noting that Russia does not have a particularly successful track record of military interventions outside of the former Soviet Union. The last such intervention was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a protracted and immensely costly campaign. It is unlikely that the conflict in Syria will be resolved any time soon and both Putin and the Russian people will be reluctant to become too deeply entrenched into the war. In practical terms, the bombing of a plane full of Russian passengers in October (claimed by ISIS), which caused 224 fatalities, will not be the last loss Russia suffers during its military campaign.


From a policy standpoint, what can Western governments do to expedite an end to the fighting in Syria?

It is clear that there is currently no coherent and cohesive Western policy towards the Syrian civil war. For the EU in particular, a constant influx of Syrian refugees through its borders remains the most pressing issue and means that European states have a great deal to gain from an end to the fighting. On the other hand, the US has been reluctant to engage in the conflict, and has largely focused its attention on providing material support – arms and funds – as well as training to the rebels. It is clear, however, that all Western governments are of the opinion that Assad should no longer remain in power and that a negotiated settlement of the conflict along with a ceasefire are immediate priorities. However, there is a great deal Western governments can still do in order to realize that objective.

First, Western governments must come together and formulate a new policy for Syria collectively. A unified stance will not only positively impact peace talks, but also allow the states conducting airstrikes and assisting the rebels to cooperate more effectively. At the same time, there needs to be a clear leader that will establish a strong narrative representing the Western coalition. The obvious choice would be the United States but at the moment, the EU has a great deal more to gain from the resolution of this conflict.

Second, there needs to be a coordinated effort to assist allies on the ground in Syria – namely the moderate opposition but also certain anti-ISIS Islamist groups. Air strikes are ultimately obsolete unless the rebels can challenge both the terrorists and government forces on the ground. There are two major advantages of this. One, rebel forces will be able to better defend themselves and effectively fight terrorist forces, allowing them to regain territory and expand through the country. Second, the stronger rebel forces are militarily, the greater bargaining power they will ultimately have in any negotiations with the Syrian government. A military stalemate is essential for a ceasefire to be enforced.

Third, support for the armed opposition must be in accordance with a well thought out policy. Key to this is regular and honest communication with allies on the ground in Syria. Numerous reports from armed groups inside Syria have lamented the lack of understanding from Western governments about the rebels’ needs. In addition, there have been far too many instances of Western arms and funds moving into the hands of terrorists. It is imperative that Western governments invest in establishing an efficient network of local information that can help them provide assistance when and where it is required and to the correct groups.

“It is imperative that Western governments invest in establishing an efficient network of local information that can help them provide assistance when and where it is required and to the correct groups.”

Lastly, Western governments must continue attempts to bring a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the conflict because the alternative – a protracted military conflict that only ends in either one side’s defeat or a military stalemate that a group like the ISIS can then exploit – will both take too long and cause too much suffering. To this end, continued support for UN-brokered peace talks is essential.


How has Islamic State managed to survive largely intact after over a year of US airstrikes?

There are a number of reasons for this, although foremost is the fact that the US is not conducting a ground offensive, which is where the majority of fighting between the Islamic State and rebel forces takes place. Moreover, because of the enormous number of armed groups on the ground in Syria, ensuring that air strikes hit the correct targets has become increasingly difficult. Indeed, air strikes from both sides have also hit innocent civilians since armed groups tend to take over entire towns and live amongst their inhabitants.

The absence of an alliance with Sunni rebel groups – often the best organized and most effective against Islamic State forces – also hinders the impact of US air strikes. Cooperation with these groups is key to successfully reversing any territorial gains the Islamic State has made and yet there is little evidence to suggest that the US is even communicating with them.


Is the Sykes-Picot conception of Syria dead?

The Arab uprisings and Syrian conflict have prompted a number of analysts to proclaim the demise of the Sykes-Picot demarcation of not just Syria, but the rest of the Middle East. Indeed, as the various groups’ competing ideologies and objectives indicate, Sykes-Picot is not only obsolete in theory, but being systematically torn down with the establishment of self-autonomous regions and border violations taking place on a daily basis. Indeed, it is impossible to say with certainty what Syria (and to a large extent, Iraq) will look like after the war ends.

“Indeed, it is impossible to say with certainty what Syria (and to a large extent, Iraq) will look like after the war ends.”

The short answer would therefore be that the Sykes-Picot conception of Syria is dead. However, the demarcation of Syria and its neighbors has been a sore and oft-contested issue ever since its conception. Indeed, Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism have both singled out the Sykes-Picot map as an enduring symbol of colonial arrogance. The Islamic State’s narrative, for instance, has repeatedly called for a complete replacement of the borders installed by the Sykes-Picot plan with its vision for a caliphate in the region. In addition, criticism of the actual borders has been near-universal. The straight lines of the Sykes-Picot plan originally sought to divide the Levant on the basis of religion: Christians and Druze in Lebanon; Jews in Palestine; Shia Muslims in the Bekaa valley between Lebanon and Syria; and Sunni Muslims in Syria. There was no consideration of either the sizable Kurdish population or the immense pitfalls of forcing religious homogeneity into geographical pockets, without any regard for other factors, such as socio-economic conditions.

As a result, the disintegration of Sykes-Picot predates the Syrian conflict. The US invasion of Iraq (and resultant partition into three components), Hizbollah’s rapid growth in Lebanon and the collapse of certain states (e.g. Libya and Yemen) were all clear indications that the existing system had failed and borders were being reinterpreted.


What’s the biggest reason for optimism for an end to the Syria conflict in 2016?

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Islamic State is slowly being beaten back through a combination of air strikes, ground fighting with both the rebels and government forces and a lack of resources. Although it is unlikely that the group’s presence can be removed from the ground completely in the near future, their retreat can allow both sides of the conflict to focus on Syria’s political future.

“There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Islamic State is slowly being beaten back…”

It is perhaps paradoxical, but the emergence of the Islamic State as the biggest current threat within Syria can bring together both sides like nothing else can. Recognizing and understanding that the Islamic State is a common enemy can both facilitate any peace negotiations this year and pave the way for a settlement and enduring ceasefire. This is, of course, exactly what Assad and his allies are hoping for and what the opposition has been resisting for the past couple of years. However, as the Islamic State’s particular brand of brutality and fear-mongering spread through Syria, it also transformed the deeply polarizing nature of Syria’s civil war. An end to the conflict requires the eradication of the Islamic State on the ground as well as the presence of both sides at the bargaining table, with the latter depending significantly on the former.


…And the biggest reason for pessimism?

At present, Assad enjoys immense support from his allies: air strikes over rebel-held areas by Russia and large numbers of foreign fighters, training, arms and funds from Hezbollah and Iran. This support has helped government forces both target rebel forces and retake territories captured by the opposition and will have the effect of stripping crucial bargaining power from the rebels in future negotiations. It is essentially diminishing Syria’s best option for a democratic future. Even if Islamic State forces can be completely removed from the equation this year, heavily unbalanced negotiations – where the military defeat of the rebels by government forces is imminent – will not ensure the resolution of those core issues that precipitated the conflict in the first place. Syria will be back to where it started, but now teeming with hundreds of desperate armed groups who are not likely to lick their wounds and settle back into civilian life under Assad’s governance.


**This interview was conducted over the first week of February, 2016. 


Hirah Azhar is the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Centre for Geopolitics & Security in Realism Studies (CGSRS).

The Centre for Geopolitics Security in Realism Studies has been founded in 2015. It is established as a globally-led concept, world-based and independent organization created to promote academic debates and realism studies.

CGSRS aims to engage with international and strategic matters by raising awareness and providing the general public with the tools to decrypt and analyze current national and international issues from a realist paradigm. We maintain a wide range of research programs and offer rigorous and policy-relevant analysis.

Our network and activities bring together experts and individuals from various horizons and places to promote and create a place of careful thinking and opinion sharing.

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