After four years of fighting, more than 250,000 dead and millions of people displaced, is the situation in Syria about to change? This is the big question and one to which I think we will soon have an answer.
Russia has been bolstering its support for Bashar al Assad, sending in equipment, personnel and troops, not enough to help the Syrian army go on the offensive but rather to help Assad consolidate and defend the territory still held. In the south of the country the rebels are consolidating the ground they hold along the border of the Israeli controlled Golan Heights and further south along the border with Jordan, it is a large area but is sandwiched in by Assad controlled territory to the north and east. The rebels also control large areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, there are however pockets of territory inside this area which are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra. Syrian Kurds control much of the northern Syrian border with Turkey. ISIS (daesh) also have control a stretch of the border with Turkey and then south and east following the Euphrates river all the way to Iraq. The country is seriously divided.
Part of the reason this war has gone on for so long is because of geo-politics, the big powers using the situation to extend their spheres of influence, if the Syrians had been left to sort this out for themselves this war would probably have ended two years ago. The problem is the USA, Russia and Iran. Russia and Iran are historic allies of the Assad regime. The USA to be honest has never had a clear strategy in Syria and has often changed its game-plan on the go, reacting rather than having a clear vision. It has been helping the rebels, as distinct from extremists ISIS (daesh) and Jabhat al Nusra (JN). Now, it seems Russia is taking the lead in trying to bring some sort of order to the mess. Not out of altruistic reason but simple recognition that after four years the Syrian army is exhausted and on the other side the rebels aren’t going to be able to make much more progress either, it is a bloody stalemate. Any solution which leads to the stopping of Assad dropping indiscriminate barrel bombs on civillian populations can only be a good thing.
What could a possible solution be? There have been a lot of behind the scenes talks between Russia, the USA and Iran, there can only be a solution if all three agree as they are all part of the problem. Russia insists that Bashar al Assad stays in power but that could well turn out to be a negotiating ploy, as its main interest is in protecting its investment in Syria, in particular weapons sales, its port on the coast at Tartous and having a friendly authoritarian government on its side. Iran, needs the Shia Alawite to stay in power as the area controlled by Assad, an Alawite, borders Lebanon and therefore is a direct connection to Hezbollah in that country. The USA is happy to see Assad and Syria weakened as is Israel, they have been working together to help the rebels take control of most of the land along the border of the Golan Heights, acting as a buffer against Assad and ISIS (daesh). So it would appear that these ‘Great’ powers can come to an agreement to freeze the conflict, with or without Assad. The official country of Syria will remain in name only. Internally, ‘the solution’ will be for semi autonomous regions, much like in eastern Ukraine. Also if the rebels and Syrian army can stop fighting each other they then might be able to concentrate efforts on pushing out the extremists. As for the Kurds who control large areas of the northern border with Turkey, they have been consistently fighting against the extremists as well as Assad, the complication here is Turkey. Turkey is afraid of the Syrian Kurds becoming too independent and joining up with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey is looking for anyway it can to control this situation. Any deal on Syria will also have a Turkish element.
Finally, if a deal is made, how will the peace be kept? The majority of the Syrian population, 70%, is Sunni but the money and power is in the hands of the Alawite Assad regime. If autonomous regions for Sunni and Kurds are created but these regions are not allowed to develop and rebuild economically then any agreement will be very short lived. Personally, I don’t see any agreement working in the long term, there is too much temptation for those in power to interfere. In the short term it might be possible to freeze this terrible war, all sides are exhausted, but there is so much bad blood on both sides and it will never be forgotten.