Toward the end of the Syrian conundrum
The fighting in Syria, which started with an uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime and transformed into a deadly civil war, has entered its fifth year. As of January 2015, it has claimed over 220,000 lives, displaced 7.6 million people inside Syria, and driven another 3.5 million people out of the country. The civil war has also had a terrible impact on Syria’s political, social and economic texture, and dramatically reduced life expectancy. It is still difficult to predict the country’s future, as political and armed struggles continue ferociously.
The differences between regional and international actors regarding the future of Syria complicate the problem. The latest example of such a division appeared as a result of a controversial statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview with CBS News on March 15. Following a similar statement earlier by CIA Director John Brennan, Kerry argued that “the U.S. would have to negotiate with al-Assad for a political transition in Syria and is exploring ways to pressure him into agreeing to talks.” Although the U.S. Department of State later clarified Kerry’s remarks and reiterated the U.S.’s policy in Syria, his words generated harsh criticism from Turkish decision makers.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu immediately reacted, reminding the U.S. that Turkey’s priority in Syria is to remove al-Assad and establish an inclusive government. Prime Minister Davutoğlu then likened shaking hands with al-Assad to shaking hands with Hitler. These came just a month after the U.S. and Turkey finally signed an agreement on Feb. 19 to train and equip Syrian opposition groups in Turkey. While the agreement was skimpy about the final objective of the operation, both sides reserved their opinions and the latest exchange once again showed the fragility of alignment between the two countries over Syria.
Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010, popular uprisings paved the way for regime changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. But many observers underestimated the power of the al-Assad regime in Syria. After four years of bloodshed, he still maintains his grip on power, though he has lost overall control of the country.
In the early stages of the conflict, there were international efforts such as the now forgotten U.N.-backed Geneva Talks - first in June 2012 and then in January 2014 - that aimed to bring the conflicting parties together around the table. However, unwillingness to compromise and the divided composition of the opposition groups prevented them from finding a solution to the problem.
Meanwhile, a power vacuum emerged in Syria and Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rose to fill it. ISIL now holds a wide stretch of territory in both countries and the gravity of the issue has distracted regional and international actors from the Syrian challenge. Thus, the Obama administration in the U.S. announced a combat strategy against ISIL in September 2014, including airstrikes against ISIL positions and supporting moderate groups fighting it on the ground.
The strategy, put in use both in Iraq and Syria in terms of airstrikes, has successfully checked ISIL expansion. But to defeat it and change the equation, much more is needed. But supporting moderate forces, especially in Syria, is still a challenge. Although the Pentagon aims to train 5,000 fighters in the first year and build up a 15,000-strong force by the end of the program, the lack of reliable and unified opposition in Syria hampers the project. Thus, with the growing costs, international impatience, and the ISIL threat, the unthinkable alternative - talking to al-Assad, as the lesser evil - becomes attractive.
Despite Turkey’s misgivings, al-Assad might again become part of the solution, just as he has been a big part of the problem.