The Great Distance Between Signing a Road Map and Ending the War in Syria

Anyone who expects the UN resolution to end the Syrian war would do well to seek a bigger helping of patience and optimism.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) sit with other ministers and delegates at the start a meeting on Syria in New York, December 18, 2015.
U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, United Nations secretary general Ban and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov sit with other delegates at the start of a meeting on Syria in New York, December 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Anyone following the cold diplomatic war between the United States and Russia over the past year can consider Friday’s UN Security Council resolution an achievement. For the first time, Russia has joined the UN resolution that outlines a plan for a political solution in Syria. In contrast, anyone who expects the resolution to end the war would do well to seek a bigger helping of patience and optimism. 

Russia and the United States have agreed on a working plan, a “road map,” but we must remember that this is an agreement between the world powers that are in the meantime not among the approximately 150 militias fighting in Syria. The Syrian regime has not yet said its final word, although it seems that word will not be Syria.

The proposal has been going back and forth for a few weeks now between representatives of Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and its main points talk about the establishment of a temporary government in Syria within six months, formulating a new constitution and holding elections within 18 months. 

The explosive issue that has so far delayed the resolution is disagreement over the participation of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the transitional government. That landmine that was defused after the United States lifted its opposition to Assad continuing in office. Ostensibly this was a significant concession in United States policy, but lacking alternatives, and with the Western coalition unwilling to place boots on the ground in Syria, the road map is the only possible realistic product in a situation in which dialogue has long been between the world powers and not with the Assad regime.

The UN resolution opens possibilities for military cooperation between the United States and Russia in the war against Islamic State and makes the Russian air force an inseparable part of the Western coalition. It will enable more efficient cooperation after the number of American sorties declined for fear of mid-air collisions following Russia's military involvement that began in September.

However, it is clear to both sides that even if aerial cooperation is perfect, this will not persuade ISIS to give up. For that to happen, the militias on the ground must be unified and therein lies the second serious obstacle to the UN resolution – the United States and Russia still disagree over the list of militias that can participate in diplomatic dialogue or those that will receive aerial assistance. 

Russia sweepingly defines most of the militias working against Assad as terror groups, while the United States supports some of them. Another stumbling block is support for the Kurdish rebels, whom Turkey sees as a terror group to be combatted, while Russia and the United States are helping them. 

The only agreement at the moment, which manifests itself in the resolution, is that ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, which is associated with Al Qaida, are terror groups that must be fought. However, al-Nusra is cooperating with other militias, like Ahrar al-Sham, and even some of the forces of the Free Syrian Army, which both Russia and the United States consider a legitimate entity. It will be interesting to see the response of the Free Syrian Army if it is asked to fight against the al-Nusra Front, when its main enemy, Hezbollah, is also perceived as legitimate, as Iran demanded and Russia supported.

Another question involves the ability of the UN envoy to cobble together a coalition of movements that will agree to sit around the table to establish a temporary government. This is especially salient considering that a good portion of the military and political opposition continues to demand that Assad be removed before negotiations begin. 

The head of the coalition of opposition movements, Khaled Khoja, criticized the UN resolution, calling it the outcome of an agreement between the world powers that ignores decisions of the opposition, which met this month in Saudi Arabia and decided, among other things, that Assad could not take part in the temporary government. 

The difficulty is even greater when these rebels realize that Russia is not promising that Assad would not be able to run in the elections to be held after the constitution is formulated and that Iran is making clear that the “Syrian people alone will elect their leaders.” That is, for Iran as well, Assad is not unacceptable. It is still too soon to know what difficulties will stand in the way of the authors of the new constitution, which is meant to be founded on civil foundations rather than ethnic or religious ones. In other words, the Alawites, who support Assad, are to be given a proper place in the new regime. 

The model of Iraq has shown that even when things are set out in a constitution, it is reality that dictates the pace and extent of settling accounts.

In this intermediate phase, at least the interests of Russia are assured, being the power with most of the political bargaining chips and the right of veto over any proposal suggested by the United States or the Arab countries. Russia is now outlining its own road map to impose its influence on Syria after the war and therefore it will have to coordinate its positions with Iran, whose very important hold in the Arab Middle East might be eroded.

This is apparently the assessment of Saudi Arabia, whose main aspiration is to block Iran in the region. Thus, even if achieving this goal might come at the expense of increased Russian influence, Saudi Arabia will not oppose it, both because of its closer ties with Russia and mainly because it expects that Syria might be ruled by Sunni forces, whose natural affinity will be for Saudi patronage. 

These considerations are theoretical at the moment, because heavy fighting is expected to continue in the near future, with each militia and every side trying as much as possible to increase their control over territory so as to reach the negotiating table with as many assets as possible.

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