Julien Barnes-Dacey explores to what extent the regional powers are responsible for the state of the conflict in Syria today.
On 8 September Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, appeared before the UK parliament's foreign affairs committee inquiry on Syria policy. The following is a brief edited extract of his comments. You can watch the appropiate extract from the parliamentary session below and the full transcript can be viewed here.
Regional politics, Iran and the Assad question
This is a Syrian uprising. But if there is going to be any shift in a positive trajectory it has to now come from the outside. It has to come from the regional players, even if there will be a long transition from that to the domestic actors on the ground—the Ahrar al-Shams, the Jabhat al-Nusras and so on. The alleged recent visit of the Syrian intelligence chief to Saudi Arabia was interesting and it is very positive that finally there are some new diplomatic channels. The Russians are talking to the Iranians. There was a tripartite Saudi, Russian and US meeting in Qatar. It is clear that there is new momentum. But, for the moment, everyone is hoping that the other side will blink. There is not yet a situation whereby the regional actors in particular are prepared to enter into a zone of compromise. Particularly from a European perspective, that is where the focus needs to be —advancing these channels and creating movement.
I think Iran is certainly looking to now be constructive. The question one poses to Iran in terms of what is constructive is critical. If it remains pivoted on the person of Assad, it will continue to fail. That is what it boils down to. For the Iranians, as for the Russians, he continues to be a non-negotiable. He is the guarantor.
But I would say that there is a lot of room to work around that. I have argued before that the Assad question is problematic. If one can move away from that, Iran, much like the Russians, would probably be willing to do much more in terms of pressuring the regime, in terms of serious compromises, in terms of some of the power sharing we have been talking about. It is clear after four years that a military attempt to depose him is not going to bear fruit. The question is, how do you enter a diplomatic process that bears fruit? I would say that taking the Assad question off the table is one way of forcing significant compromises, including, for instance, the ending of barrel bombs, via the Iranians and Russians.
Based on facts on the ground, Assad will never be the ruler he once was: he has lost control of most of the country in a way that he can never recover. In terms of a centralised Syrian state, I think that is an impossibility now. Power has been seized at the local level, whether it be the Kurds, the Alawite militias or Sunni opposition groups, and Damascus is never going to recover that. If Assad was out of the equation, of course everything would be a lot easier, particularly if that involved some kind of transition that maintained the structures of power of the state, but I do not think that is a likely scenario. I think that the regime supporters, who are still numerous, see Assad as a guarantor of what is holding it together: he is, in a sense, the glue. If Assad was to go, that could precipitate a faster move towards that implosion and fragmentation.
The anti-ISIS fight
One of the critical elements here is that so long as the West is willing to assume responsibility for the fight against ISIS, there is very little reason for regional states to prioritise it. So long as US and European jets are the ones bombing them, the likes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran can say, “Well, the ISIS problem is being dealt with. We can concentrate on our geopolitical regional problems. We can even see how we can use the fight against ISIS to further those regional ambitions.”
In terms of the critical necessity of engendering further regional ownership, the question of how much the West assumes that ownership and what that does to regional motivation and threat perceptions is key. Clearly, if bombs are going off in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, that is upping the ante, but I think it will be some time before the response is not to say, “This is a justification of a narrative that Assad must go,” as opposed to what I think is needed: a more consensual approach that recognises that the zero-sum vision is actually beginning to threaten them, in terms of not just the security consequences but the shaping of the region. So long as we protect them and watch their backs, they are not necessarily going to step up to the plate.
The Saudis and the Turks and others are of course hoping that Western intervention against ISIS leads towards action against Assad, whereas the Iranians are hoping that anti-ISIS action leads towards working with Assad. For all the regional countries, it is entrenching their zero-sum positions and entrenching the sense that the West will come to their aid, so it is a dangerous dynamic.
In terms of the Uk's anti-ISIS air strikes, they risk making the threat from ISIS worse. Air strikes feeds a sense of radicalisation within Syria, because Sunnis say, “Look, the West is not helping us against Assad, but they are fighting ISIS.” It also makes us more of a direct threat. We become direct parties, all the while contributing nothing meaningful, in terms of military numbers or capability.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.