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Without Russian support, little hope for ending Syria’s humanitarian crisis

kerry syria

As the UN’s special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi sought to bring in the same room for the first time the two warring factions in the three-year-old Syrian conflict that has so far claimed over 130,000 lives, and even as Bashar al-Assad’s forces kept up their attacks on the northern city of Aleppo throughout the talks, top international and U.S. officials gathered in Washington to discuss the unfolding of the humanitarian catastrophe in the war-torn country.

On Friday Jan. 31, a high-level panel hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute brought together top exponents from UN agencies, the U.S. government, the European Union (EU), and Syrian-American civil society to discuss potential solutions to the crisis. The call, shared by the majority of those present, was one: the international community, and the U.S. in particular, should step-up humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians by shifting from purely humanitarian-based aid to funds that will focus more on development initiatives that may help the country rebuild itself.

Shifting from humanitarian assistance to a development-based response

“Economics alone can break up the country over the next two years,” said Abdullah Al-Dardari, a former Syrian deputy prime minister and now a chief economist at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA). But, he pleaded, if the war were to stop now, the country may still rebuild itself. What Al-Dardari lamented more than anything else was the failure by the international community to implement a truly constructive development program there.

“Had we practiced some development activities in Syria, we could have reduced the massive flow into [neighboring] Jordan and Lebanon,” he said, noting that this would have limited the damages of a conflict that has so far engulfed the entire surrounding region.

The call for a more development-based approach was seconded by another top UN official at the panel. Amin Awad, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asked his audience: “For how long will the neighboring countries keep their borders open?” His plea, directed at both the U.S. government and Western civil society, was for greater financial support to humanitarian missions operating in the country. This, Awad noted, would facilitate the UNHCR’s new stated mission of taking on a development-based approach to the humanitarian crisis, an approach that will hopefully see the Syrian “people receiving cash assistance in an effort to stimulate economic opportunities.”

“[We need to] move beyond mere humanitarian assistance, towards a solution that will actually sustain people,” Awad said.

The State Department representative at the panel, Anne Richard, reassured the audience that the U.S. is currently leading the humanitarian effort, noting that the United States is “the top donor” thanks to a combination of State Department and USAID funds.

The missing call

But while the humanitarian call, including its new development component, will be crucial in the next stages of a conflict that does not seem to show any end in sight, there was something missing from the discussion, something that is generally missing from the overall Syria discussion in Washington: the need to remove Assad’s regime.

The call for a more development-based response to the Syrian crisis by UN and U.S. officials makes sense. But as Jomana Qaddour, the co-founder of Syria Relief and Development (SRD), told the audience: “We can throw money in, but until there’s a political solution, our hands are tied.” The SRD, a U.S.-based NGO operating inside Syria, has provided medical assistance to refugees and displaced individuals since the outbreak of the conflict. The on-the-ground perspective brought by the organization can help a U.S. audience understand what is really needed in the country.

The “political solution” that Qaddour mentioned has, for several reasons, been largely unexplored. Discussions of how to remove Assad have been absent within the Washington political establishment, with the only exception perhaps of intermittent calls for Assad’s removal. But there is little or no discussion of how to actually remove the regime, and of what may stand in the way of that goal.

With Assad stating that he will under no circumstances cede power, and with the opposition reiterating their sole wish to see Assad gone, there seems to be no room for compromise. If the plight is to end, however, the country will necessarily need a new political framework, one where Assad’s regime will have to be replaced by an alternative arrangement.

How to get Russia onboard

Since the outbreak of hostilities, the Russian government has taken a firm stance in its support of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. When the Obama administration contemplated a military strike last fall in the aftermath of the alleged chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Vladimir Putin warned the White House that Russia would consider sending a missile shield to aid Assad’s response. “If we see that steps are taken that violate the existing international norms,” Putin warned, “we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons,” The Guardian newspaper reported at the time.

Russia’s support for Assad has been repeatedly portrayed as the main obstacle to a political solution to Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

A close ally of Assad’s, Russia has consistently flexed its muscles whenever there has been talk of intervention in both multilateral and bilateral venues. This is primarily because Assad’s regime is one of the few remaining Russian allies in the region, an asset Moscow will not renounce easily.

That means that if the U.S. and the international community are serious about removing Assad’s government, they will have to focus on getting Putin onboard before taking such an action. Despite numerous viewpoints stating otherwise, this is actually possible. The U.S. will have to convince the Kremlin that an alternative to Assad will be in Russia’s interests, and this is not impossible.

After all, it should be remembered that Russia’s interest in regime preservation in Syria, as anywhere else, is a matter of calculated interest. It is a well-known principle of Russian foreign policy that Moscow opposes regime change when there are no viable alternatives to an existing regime. Putin often points to the Arab Spring and to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as clear evidence of how regime change is followed by chaos, terrorism, and unpredictability.

But if viable and feasible alternatives are offered, Putin may perhaps rethink its support for Assad. If the U.S., together with Saudi Arabia – one of the main financial contributors to opposition forces – were to coordinate a unified Syrian opposition that could possibly carry a majority in future elections, the country may gradually move toward stability. A top priority in this case would be to ensure that the U.S.-led alternative will be free of extremist and Islamist elements, and that it would reflect the wish of the majority of Syrians to go back to their lives peacefully.

Currently, there seem to be no such guarantees. If Assad’s regime were to be toppled over the next few months, insurgent groups may fill the power vacuum, which could then accelerate and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Syria’s neighboring countries will continue to assist the groups financially and militarily, and strife may endure for many years to come.

This means that before a new arrangement is introduced, regional governments will need to halt their funding and look, instead, for ways to create a unified political front that could provide a feasible alternative to the regime. Creating such an alliance within the opposition will not be easy, but this is where the U.S. and the regional players could step in: If countries such as Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, led by the U.S., were to use their financial leverage on the opposition, something resembling a compromise may eventually emerge.

If the international community succeeded in ensuring the stability of such an arrangement, Russia may offer its support for an alternative to Assad. One such alternative could be a NATO peacekeeping force, with troops stationed in key areas to enforce the cease-fire during a transitional period. The crucial component will be, however, to reassure the Kremlin beforehand that any proposed arrangement will guarantee Syria’s stability and Russia’s geopolitical interests in the region.

The way forward

The high-level panel hosted by the Middle East Institute provided a great opportunity for policymakers to come together and share their thoughts on how to put an end to a humanitarian crisis that has seen over six million displaced individuals, in addition to nearly two and a half million people pouring into fragile neighboring countries.

The end of the Assad regime is widely perceived as the only real solution. But the way forward will necessarily require a clear and articulate discussion of how to actually transition to a new regime, keeping into consideration the diplomatic obstacles to such an alternative. Russia’s role and influence cannot be ignored, and no solution will be reached without its support, unless the U.S. is willing to take unilateral action, something American voters are unlikely to agree to.

Iran’s position is also an important factor to be reckoned with. Tehran has funded Hezbollah fighters and other militants in support of Assad’s forces, providing weapons and other financial and logistical support. But Iran’s role in the dispute may perhaps be easier to tackle.

As leading Syria-analyst Joshua Landis recently told a group of reporters in Washington, it is possible that “Iran will accept a half-loaf, as long as it gets a pathway to Hezbollah in Lebanon. [Tehran] doesn’t need Aleppo, and would like to stop spending money” in a conflict that has become quite precarious.

At this stage, the best alternative is to let the Geneva process go forward, seeing where it might lead to. But if the parties failed to achieve compromise, it may be time to consider what a post-Assad Syria may look like, and what it will take the U.S. and the international community to secure Russian and Iranian support for a transitional arrangement.




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July 2018
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Roma - Sala “Massimo Paolicelli” Palazzo Teodoli, Piazza del Parlamento 19
Date :  2018-07-05


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