Monday, January 6, 2014

Growing Pains: The Prospects of Peace and Escalation in Syria

By: Nazayh Zanidean, Special to Canadian Trends

As the Geneva II peace talks for figuring out a political solution to the Syrian conflict inch closer and closer, it’s starting to look like they are going to fail before anyone even gets there. That is, if they show up at all.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad certainly doesn’t want to. While I’m sure he himself realizes that there will be no return to the days before the Arab Spring - the days when he dutifully tortured our own post-9/11 suspects so we didn’t have to- he’s not exactly losing the war, either. His opposition is disorganized, fractured and seemingly more concerned now with fighting each other than toppling the Alawite but secular president. The former regime soldiers who make up the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) now not only have to defend themselves from Assad’s brutal oil-filled barrel bombs, but from the fundamentalist and Al-Queda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) who this past weekend took over two major Iraqi cities in their pursuit of the ultimate global Islamic caliphate. These guys (and their Syrian counterparts Al-Nusra) are about as violent and cruel as it gets whose brutality has caught the eye of human rights organizations worldwide. Throw in the newly formed and largest rebel group the Islamic Front (IF) with their declared war on ISIS and ongoing conflict with the FSA, and it’s clear this headache is hurting everyone but Assad.

Perhaps nobody is feeling the pain worse than Obama himself. Starting with Kerry’s gaffe last summer that put the war machine on a temporary hiatus, it’s become obvious to both Assad and the opposition that the West is rapidly losing whatever influence it had in the region. The first deadline to start removing chemical weapons from Syria has come and gone with barely an acknowledgment from the State department and it seems like the Americans are so desperate to find a political solution in Geneva that Kerry has even alluded to the idea of allowing Iran to have an behind-the-scenes role at the peace talks in January 22 (which they politely declined). The actual talks themselves, however, are likely to fail before they even begin – Assad doesn’t want to go if it means he might have to give up power (he may be in campaign mode already), the Syrian National Council has said they won’t attend even if the Western-backed Coalition does, the IF won’t even answer Kerry’s phone calls and ISIS is too busy fighting a three front war in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to seriously consider the idea of discussing peace. Kerry was probably thinking that if Iran was invited to Geneva, then at least someone might show up...

Obama has painted himself into a corner with the Syria file. With the Geneva peace talks likely to fail before they even start and a fractured opposition now having fight within themselves against the ISIL, the best strategy for the US to help put Assad out of business would be to put more funding and support to the largest rebel group. This would mean that the United States would have to start working with the Islamic Front (IF), an moderate Islamic group whose stated goal is an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia law. Not exactly the democratic and public relations win the US was likely hoping for when they backed down from attacking Syria, but it’s a moot point anyway since the IF are looking to do this without Western support. Even doubling down on the previous investments in the FSA (composed mostly of defected Syrian Armed Forces) looks grim as soldiers defect yet again to anti-American rebel groups in order to protect themselves from the Assad regime in the ways Washington only promised. His bluff called and with no friends left in the area to do the dirty work for him, Obama is indeed between a rock and one hell of a hard place in Syria.

2014 could very well be the year that the Syrian proxy war becomes a multi-state conflict. The Middle East is on shaky ground at the best of times, but the Syrian war has spread now beyond its borders and is increasing sectarian tensions across the region leaving all states vulnerable to further unrest and violence. Lebanon in particular has felt the consequences of the war next door. Nearly one million Syrian refugees seek warmth and food from a country overwhelmed and barely able to support the Palestinian refugee population already there. Car bombs and assassinations are becoming the norm again as sectarian fighting between ISIL and Hezbollah takes place on the streets of Beirut with warnings that more are to follow. This is already working to stir up Sunni and Shia tensions in the small Mediterranean state, but perhaps most worrisome is that Israel (who struck Syria at least five times in 2013) has expressed concerns that they are unable to prevent long range missiles held by Hezbollah in Syria from being transported to strongholds in Lebanon where they could ultimately be used to target Israeli cities. There is any number of possible scenarios that could finally draw Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Hamas or Hezbollah into a full-scale involvement in this regional conflict and, like a cancerous tumour, any sign of growth in this conflict is a signal of bad times ahead. The potential for things to get messier than they already are is increasing almost by the day.

The bottom line, though, is that it would be ridiculous for me to sit here as an armchair critic and act as though I have an analysis in the region that Obama’s foreign policy experts do not. It’s no secret that Washington has wanted regime change in Iran for years and these unstable conditions being created in the Middle East from a bungled American foreign policy could very well be the platform to start that war. It’s entirely possible that we are only witnessing the consciously designed first stage of a much larger conflict. The Geneva II peace talks will fail, Islamic fundamentalism will grow both in Syria and in the surrounding states, and I fully expect ISIL will make good on their threats to continue targeting Hezbollah interests in Lebanon with explosives as the proxy war continues to bleed through Syria’s borders.

Worst of all, I fully expect that the 2.2 million human beings who have been forced to flee their former lives in Syria for diseased and freezing refugee camps likely won’t be going home anytime soon.

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Richard Fantin is a self-taught software developer who has mostly throughout his career focused on financial applications and high frequency trading. He currently works for CenturyLink

Nazayh Zanidean is a Project Coordinator for a mid-sized construction contractor in Calgary, Alberta. He enjoys writing as a hobby on topics that include foreign policy, international human rights, security and systemic media bias.

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