The bad news for everyone need not be bad for the moderate forces, writes Bassma Kodmani
Professional mediators maintain that parties to a conflict have an incentive to enter serious negotiations only when they find the pain of continuing hostilities less bearable than the concessions needed to end it. The problem in Syria’s civil war, according to many diplomats, is that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition have yet to reach a “mutually hurting stalemate”.
The problem with this theory is it does not specify who is hurt. The reality is that Syrian civilians are feeling more pain than the regime, while the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the monstrous militant group that now styles itself Islamic State, is prospering.
Three and half years into the disastrous war, Isis has accomplished the nearly impossible trick of uniting all the opposing parties : the US, Europe, Iran, Russia, the various Lebanese factions, the new Iraqi government and, of course, Mr Assad. Syria’s president had been buying oil from the movement (accounting for a good part of its resources until it laid its hand on oil and gas wells in Iraq) but now ostentatiously bombs it to make sure he comes out on the right side of the new consensus.
The moderate opposition was the first to alert the world to the rising threat of terrorism in Syria. Back in 2011-12, when I was a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, we would tell every diplomat we met that Syria would soon become a very dangerous place if nothing was done to stop the massacre. We stressed that containment was a fantasy, that the regime was encouraging the jihadis in order to discredit the democratic nature of the protest and in order to position itself as the only party who could crush it again. We warned that western powers would be forced to intervene to extinguish a regional fire. Though it is hardly a reason to rejoice, we are no longer a lonely voice.
Despite meagre means, the nationalist opposition fought Isis in early 2014 and pushed it out of large areas of northern Syria, allowing for the return of civil bodies, including courts, and women’s renewed visibility in public. But the group has become too powerful for the opposition to fight alone. After its staggering conquests in Iraq, with the arms and money it now controls, the threat posed by Isis reaches far beyond Syria. Only a coalition of international and regional forces can clean up the mess.
The power of Isis is the product of various forms of cynicism among all parties. Some have manipulated the group and struck deals with it while others allowed it to grow. Now that it is out of control, everyone must take responsibility for stopping it. Each party is redefining its tactical and strategic allies while deciding which enemies it needs to fight first and which it can turn into friends.
In the wake of the routing of the Iraqi army by Isis in early July, the Syrian opposition coalition has rushed to make a statement about its continued readiness to fight in a battle it has waged alone for almost a year. But it has already proved that it sits on the right side of the fence. Now is the time for the opposition to develop its own strand of realism – not to say cynicism.
Democratic forces inside Syria should say loud and clear that they will continue to fight Isis, as well as the regime. But they need only say it ; in reality they do not have, and never have had, the means to defeat both enemies. At this moment of reckoning, the news for the moderate opposition is not necessarily so bad. First, those countries who are fighting alongside Mr Assad against the opposition, and those who support us as friends of the Syrian people, now have a compelling reason to co-operate. It is only a matter of time before the antagonistic regimes in Tehran and Riyadh start to work together.
Second, Iran’s achievements of controlling both the regimes in Syria and Iraq over the last decade are turning into poison. Tehran has offered unlimited support to Mr Assad over the past three years. In Iraq, it backed Nouri al-Maliki unconditionally until mid-August, when it acquiesced in his ouster. But Tehran may be realising the cost of relying on incompetent allies. It is now having to micromanage both situations and is unlikely to be able to sustain the effort. There is no winning scenario for Iran in either place.
Third, there is a risk that the countries that most fear Isis (including Iran and Russia, but there are others too) will want to boost the Assad regime as the force most capable of quelling that danger. While this may be true on a military level, the Iraqi precedent is instructive. All parties, including Moscow and Tehran, understood that Mr Maliki had to be excluded from the political equation if the fight against Isis is to have any chance. The same applies in Syria. Tehran and Moscow need to stop seeing the ousting of Mr Assad as a defeat, and start working to secure it.
The Syrian opposition’s best option for now is to lay low and watch the constellation of actors shift in new directions. As the French say : it is “urgent to wait”.