After more than two years of civil war and atrocities committed on both sides, can anyone win in Syria? The regime of Bashar al-Assad says no – at least publicly. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told the Guardian yesterday that the war had become a stalemate, and that all sides need to enter into negotiations:
Qadri Jamil said that neither side was strong enough to win the conflict, which has lasted two years and caused the death of more than 100,000 people. Jamil, who is in charge of country’s finances, also said that the Syrian economy had suffered catastrophic losses.
“Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side,” he said. “This zero balance of forces will not change for a while.”
Meanwhile, he said, the Syrian economy had lost about $100bn (£62bn), equivalent to two years of normal production, during the war.
If accepted by the armed opposition, a ceasefire would have to be kept “under international observation”, which could be provided by monitors or UN peace-keepers – as long as they came from neutral or friendly countries, he said.
Leaders of Syria‘s armed opposition have repeatedly refused to go to what is called Geneva Two unless Assad first resigns. An earlier conference on Syria at Geneva lasted for just one day in June last year and no Syrians attended.
Unlike earlier efforts to pull a peace conference together, the regime laid a few cards on the table:
Jamil’s comments are the first indication of the proposals that Syria will bring to the table at the summit, which Russia and the US have been trying to convene for months.
Asked what proposals his government would make at Geneva, he said: “An end to external intervention, a ceasefire and the launching of a peaceful political process in a way that the Syrian people can enjoy self-determination without outside intervention and in a democratic way.”
Jamil wants to get the West “off our shoulders,” and says that “for all practical purposes, the regime in its previous form has ended.” However, the timing is certainly interesting. While Jamil rejects the US demand that the talks should give the West-backed Syrian National Coalition the only opposition seat at the conference, it’s the emergence of Sunni extremist networks that has most changed the face of the conflict.
The al-Qaeda affiliates ISIS (formerly AQ-Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra have always played a major role in the conflict, but the radical Sunnis are grabbing more territory, and now at the expense of the other rebel factions. Nusra seized Ash Shaddadi and now has enough oil and gas revenues to maintain self-sufficiency for the entire war effort. ISIS just grabbed Azaz from the Free Syrian Army and can now choke off the humanitarian and military aid that has kept the FSA afloat for the last two years.
This step by Jamil and the Assad regime looks less like a declaration of futility and more like a well-timed gambit to split the rebels permanently. FSA erupted in outrage and fury to the attack on Azaz, swearing vengeance on their one-time partners in the rebellion and declaring them outsiders in the conflict. As Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post (via The Week), a full-fledged war between FSA and ISIS and perhaps Nusra is coming, and the Islamists have the upper hand — with better resources and external support, as well as better fighting units.
Perhaps the Assad regime believes that it can woo the FSA to reach a political settlement that will put the native rebels on the same side as the military against the radical Sunni Islamist terror networks. At this point, FSA may not have its leverage for a settlement for long, either, which means that if they ever cut a deal to end the war — at least their part of it — now would be the time to do so. That would allow Assad to change the nature of the war from a rebellion against his oppressive dictatorship into a straight-up war against al-Qaeda and its radical Sunni backers, another Sunni/Shi’ite conflict in which the West either has no interest or an interest in defeating Assad’s enemies.
That may be a long shot — but looking at this from Assad’s point of view, it’s a gambit worth trying, at least.
Update: The SNC sent up a warning this morning about the AQ takeover of the rebellion:
Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group on Friday slammed al-Qaida-linked gunmen and their expanding influence in the country, saying the jihadis’ push to establish an Islamic state undermines the rebels’ struggle for a free Syria.
The statement from Syrian National Coalition comes as a truce was reached late Thursday after two days of vicious infighting in which the extremists seized control of the northern town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, from mainstream opposition fighters. The fighting prompted Turkey to close a major nearby crossing point.
The SNC said the actions of the al-Qaida-linked fighters “counter the principals that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve” in its battle against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syrians are “moderate and respect religious and political pluralism while rejecting blind extremism,” the SNC said.
The statement also warned that the Islamic fighters are “strengthening their positions” in opposition-controlled areas after they stopped fighting regime forces on several front lines.
The timing of this gambit by Assad looks pretty good, if this is what he has in mind.