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Opinion: Procrastination on Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Syrian refugee waves a revolutionary flag during a protest against any concessions his country’s opposition may make to the Syrian government at the Geneva peace talks at Zaatari camp in Mafraq, Jordan, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Despite the recent leaks about a controversial plan to solve the crisis in Syria, there are strong indications that there are no solutions in sight and that the international community is still floundering regarding how to deal with the Syrian conflict.

The resignation, or sacking, of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a few days ago confirms this saddening state of affairs and amply demonstrates the White House’s confused policy on Syria, with the general trend being to procrastinate and ignore the crisis there. According to US sources, Hagel recently sent a memo to the White House voicing concerns over his country’s strategy in Syria and calling for a clearer position on the future of the Bashar Al-Assad regime. He also warned that ignoring the Syrian crisis will severely hamper the US strategy in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

If this is the position of the former US Defense Secretary, who is known for accurately implementing the White House’s policy despite his own personal reservations, then the problem seems to lie with Washington’s strategy on Syria. Hagel’s sacking also sends the message that there will be no changes in US policy, which has been marked by uncertainty and hesitation, and that the trend will be to ignore the crisis and focus on fighting ISIS. At this stage, Barack Obama’s administration seems to be more focused on Iran’s nuclear program, investing a lot of time and effort in attempts to reach a settlement on this issue. Perhaps Washington will seek to link the Syrian dossier to developments with Iran, Assad’s main backer. Obama’s administration reportedly wants to cooperate with Iran in the war on ISIS, even if indirectly, and thinks that Tehran will have a role to play in the war on terror, whether in Iraq or Syria.

The picture gets even more suspicious as the Syrian regime is undoubtedly benefiting from the US-led international coalition’s airstrikes on ISIS positions. In fact, Damascus did not hide its gratification with the situation, so much so that some pro-government news outlets spoke of Damascus and Washington being “in the same trench” in the war on terror. Even if we consider such comments as exaggeration on the part of the regime, the reports recently leaked from Western capitals about plans to achieve “calm” through local truces between the regime and “moderate” opposition factions confirms that the prevailing line of thinking in Washington is to postpone the decision on the fate of Bashar Al-Assad and reduce pressures on government forces in order to allow them to confront ISIS. To be more explicit, the Syrian government has now become part of the Western strategy to confront and defeat the so-called Islamic State.

One recent such leak came via “Steps to Settle the Syrian Conflict,” a report released by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), a Geneva-based organization. The report was circulated widely after it was leaked by HD members who sent it to several journalists and interested parties. What is remarkable is that the leaking of the report coincided with the announcement of a proposal by Staffan de Mistura, the third UN Envoy to Syria since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. De Mistura’s proposal aims were initially to achieve a ceasefire in Aleppo in order to alleviate the suffering of the people of the city. According to de Mistura, the plan, if implemented, will serve as a model for future agreements in different locations.

This argument represents the essence of the HD report. According to the leaked report, achieving calm by securing local truces may be the best model for an overall cessation of hostilities. The report bases its views on the difficulty of reaching a comprehensive ceasefire deal given the disparate opposition factions and disputes between them. With the absence of a clear alternative plan in the West, particularly the US, the only hope is to achieve gradual “calm” through partial local ceasefires, according to the report. These partial truces should be followed by local council elections to prepare for general elections under international supervision.

Two points inferred from the report will, no doubt, frustrate the opposition. First, the solution in the short-term would not lie in transferring or sharing power, but rather in suspending the fight. Secondly, it would be better to maintain the structure of the state—even if this means that the regime would remain in power for the near future—instead of risking the collapse of the regime and the loss of the state to “jihadists” who continue to spread at the expense of the moderate opposition.

A lasting solution to the Syrian crisis will, it seems, remain on hold due to the lack of a clear strategy to resolve the conflict. What is being put forward now will only serve to delay a resolution for years to come, during which time anything could happen. In the worst case scenario, Syria will be dismantled by the conflicting sides similar to what happened to Iraq due to the chaos, internal and regional conflict and international calculations. We are witnessing a period of the destruction and dismantling of successive regional states.