Ruslan Trad: There is no drive for political solution to Syria's crisis

The EU took the stand of a passive onlooker, it should have intervened long time ago, even by force

For several years now, the war in Syria is not only a civil war but a regional conflict, which will only escalate. Ceasefires are mainly used by the involved parties as a tactic to buy time to regroup in preparation for more attacks. Extremist groups take advantage of the situation and through populist strategies paint themselves as a resistance, Ruslan Trad, journalist and Middle East analyst, says in an interview to Europost.

Mr Trad, the presidents of Russia and Turkey negotiated on 5 March the latest ceasefire in Syria's Idlib province. Has the agreement managed to defuse tensions in the region?

The meeting lasted six hours and many analysts were wondering what would come of such a long conversation. Well, it did not produce anything drastically different. With slight alterations, this agreement reaffirms what was negotiated in the 2018 deal, which established the demilitarised zone around the Idlib province, so frequently violated since then. As you probably know, the zone was agreed following a number of meetings and talks between Turkey, Iran and Russia in the Astana format, and later between Turkey and Russia in Sochi. It is set up around the Idlib province and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Hama and Latakia.

There is no reason to believe this ceasefire will hold up. Its many predecessors in the course of the Syrian war had all been broken on the very next day. That is what happened with this latest one too - it was broken within an hour of it taking effect. Permanent truce is not viable in Syria because both sides of the conflict and the geopolitical forces backing them have no desire for one. Ceasefires are mainly used by the involved parties as a tactic to buy time to regroup in preparation for more attacks.

So what is the new element?

The new element produced by the talks on de-escalating the situation is that, with its support for the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia effectively legitimised the Syrian regime's gains in the Idlib province, even though they are in violation of the terms agreed in the Sochi and Astana deals. Currently, the territories bordering the M4 and M5 highways are controlled by Assad. These highways are important to the Syrian government because they connect the capital to Aleppo, which is the country's second most important city, and Aleppo to the coastline, where the strongholds of the establishment and the Russian forces are.

Why has the battle for Idlib drawn so much international attention?

The struggle for Idlib is symbolic because the province is a bastion of the rebel forces, but also because it is viewed as the culmination of the Assad regime's efforts to regain control of all the territories that have seceded since the start of the war in 2012-13. All rebel forces are located in Idlib, having been forced to retreat by previous military operations in Syria.

The regime in Damascus is trying very hard to retake the region, not only because it would mean crushing the opposition forces located there, but because it would restore traffic on the main roads in northern and western Syria at a moment when the government-controlled areas are going through a serious economic crisis. Idlib is also a very fertile region, which makes it that much more important. Most of the people driven from their homes in other areas of the country are also in Idlib, which makes it a massive refugee camp. Its proximity to the Turkish border has caused major concerns in Europe and for good reason - since the start of Assad's latest offensive at the end of 2019, nearly one million people have been forced to flee towards the Turkish border, which has remained closed. The resulting humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic levels. For Turkey it is imperative that it retains control over its border areas, which include northwestern Syria. To that end, Ankara attacked the Kurdish forces in Afrin in 2018, as well as those in northern Syria in October 2019. Idlib is considered to be an area of Turkish influence, which is what prompted the Turkish military to send serious firepower there.

The Syrian government insists that it is saving the country from al-Qaeda fighters and other extremist groups. What are they doing in Idlib?

Yes, this region has allowed extremist groups to maintain presence in Syria. Over the past few years they have steadily pushed out the rebel forces fighting against the regime, seizing control of settlements along the way. That has been a concern for both Russia and Turkey, but no concrete steps have been made to counter their advancement. The problem is that these extremist groups take advantage of the situation and through populist strategies paint themselves as a resistance force opposing Turkey and Russia alike. Tired of escalating violence and displacement, the local population does not want to be caught in a trap because of someone else's interests. The propaganda of the extremist groups found fertile ground, which has made them popular. Their ranks include foreign fighters, mostly from the Caucasus region and central Asia, who have no intention of putting their weapons down. They have become a major player and neither the rebels nor Russia can afford to ignore them. These extremist groups, including the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Hurras al-Din, have already come out and rejected the agreement of 5 March, which will serve as excuse for more fighting in Idlib.

Where are the weapons needed to sustain the conflict coming from?

There is no simple answer to this question. I wish I could show you the array of images and footage showing ransacked barracks and arms warehouses of the Syrian military - often that is the rebels' way of getting armed. During the clashes in Idlib, a huge amount of shells, ammunitions and firearms were plundered. Turkey has also provided a lot of weapons, but for the most part, the rebels manage thanks to the weapons they steal from the opposing forces. Some of the weapons are leftovers from the US programme under President Barack Obama for training a rebel militia, which was later suspended. Let us not forget that the rebels do not have anti-aircraft system or air forces, which creates immense advantage for Assad's forces. It is not that the rebel forces are so strong, the ground troops of Assad are weak. Assad's forces are undermanned, which is why Hezbollah, Iran and Russia had to intervene and help the Syrian government retain control of the territory it has taken back from the rebels.

The UN reports about a huge number of refugees fleeing Idlib. Where are they now? And where are they headed?

Presently, there are over one million people at the Syrian-Turkish border. They have been displaced in waves over the past year, with the largest chunk of them - 800,000 - in the past three months. A number of refugee camps have been hastily set up along the border and they now accommodate a massive number of people in poor conditions, which is a problem - there is a threat of diseases and a humanitarian crisis. More people are moving from the southern parts of Idlib and the western areas of Aleppo to the Turkish border and the city of Idlib. But soon there will be no space for them there. As I said earlier, the Syrian-Turkish border is closed. If fighting is resumed, there will be more displaced people.

What is the situation in the other regions of Syria? Is there war there now?

There are some problems in the rest of the Syrian territories. The tensions there cause serious concerns to both the Damascus regime and the Russian command. As of 2018, the province of Daraa and the entire southern Syria have been under Assad's control after several agreements were made followed by massive military operations backed by Russian forces. After these treaties were signed, the local insurgent formations agreed to cede control to the Assad forces in exchange for compromises on the part of the government. The problem is that for over a year and a half now a new revolt has been brewing in Daraa where the insurgents and the opposition still have strong influence. The squalid living conditions along with a series of arrests during the last year add fuel to discontent. And it is manifest in political murders, partisan activities and even attacks on the military outposts. So, for instance, as of the end of February 2020 there were several assaults on the military outposts, two cities even went out of control and the Russians had to send their troops there.

In the city of Sweida, which is inhabited by Druze, there is serious controversy between the local elite and the Syrian government forces. Officially the Druze support Assad's government but de facto their territories are guarded by local militias. For over a year now, there are a lot of security problems there. After more than 200 people were killed in the Islamic State attack in Sweida in 2018, the local elites openly accused Assad that his forces have done nothing to stop the jihadists. A week ago, the conflict worsened to the point of fire exchange and abduction of regime's soldiers by Druze forces. Again the Russians had to send in their delegation to negotiate de-escalation in the area. There are problems with the partisan activities of the insurgents near the capital, as well as in the province of Homs. The economic issues aggravate tensions in the government-controlled areas, among them the collapse of the Syrian lira, frequent power cuts and fuel shortages.

Problems arise in eastern Syria too. On the one hand, there are Kurdish forces and the US troops which back them. In Deir ez Zor the Russian and US troops come into conflict and put spokes into each other's wheels for months now. On the other hand, Islamic State is very active in the area. The desert regions of Homs are attacked by the jihadists who assault both the Kurdish forces and Assad's troops.

Do you believe that a political solution for ending this war can be found while Bashar Assad is still in power?

Evidently, such a political solution cannot be reached. The European bureaucrats would like to end the war and find a political solution but this is naive and unrealistic. Russia and Assad will not benefit from a political solution because for them it would mean leaving vast territories out of their control. The insurgents don't want such an agreement either.

Europe pays heed to the situation in Syria not when the humanitarian crisis becomes terrible but when its own borders are endangered by refugees. Didn't the EU have to respond long ago and how?

Oh, yes, the EU had to interfere, even by force, if need be. The war in Syria could have been avoided as early as in 2012. But the EU took the stand of a passive and apathetic onlooker and was displaced by Russia, Turkey and Iran. It appears that the European bureaucrats don't want to realise what is happening in Syria, and it is too late now to take action, especially with a view to the economic dependencies between European politicians and businessmen in Syria and Iran. Europe prefers to pay others to be a buffer and to guard the borders, instead of being a real geopolitical factor. This stand is sad and disappointing.

Why doesn't the US want to interfere in resolving this conflict?

There is a short and a long answer to this question. The short answer is quite prosaic - the US has no interest to intervene in Syria. The US was the last party to interfere in the Syrian conflict; and furthermore, the US has shown no interest in toppling Assad or anything to that effect. The Americans went to eastern Syria and backed the Kurds with the idea to guard the strategic border with Iraq and the oil fields.

On the whole, however, we cannot talk about a comprehensive policy, such as that pursued by Russia and Iran, and Obama's administration bear a large part of the blame for it. The politicians in Washington make a mistake just like their European colleagues who don't realise that conflicts like the one in Syria are a threat to security across the world. They refuse to accept the reality that the conflicts are starting to assume a different form, and hiring mercenaries is becoming an increasingly widespread practice. Russia is well aware of it. Moscow is a step ahead of the West, and it will be so until in Paris, Berlin and Washington they understand that a new comprehensive policy and a different way of thinking are needed.

What is your prognosis? What will happen - the regime in Syria will be changed, or the country partitioned, or the conflict will escalate into a global collision?

There is no consensus on changing the regime in Syria. Assad has saved himself, or to be more accurate - he was saved. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov believes that in 2015 the insurgents were close to seizing Damascus if the Russians didn't intervene. This is true, but now the real situation is different. Syria exists now only because no one has any interest in partitioning this country, although in fact its territory is divided into zones of influence. In southern Syria these are Russian and Iranian zones, the Americans control eastern regions, in northern Syria there are Russian, Turkish and US troops, whilst western Syria is under Russian and central Syria under Iranian control. There are zones where several countries deployed their forces and share control with each other. We cannot talk about sovereignty because it was impinged upon long ago. For several years now, the war in Syria is not only a civil war but a regional conflict, which will only escalate. It would be naive to think that we will soon see the end of it. Currently such scenario is out of the question.

 

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Ruslan Trad is an analyst, author and freelance journalist of Syrian descent whose interests are in the Middle East and North Africa. He has lectured in Bulgarian universities, the Diplomatic Institute with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and NATO, and has published a series of articles on Lebanon, Southeastern Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Thailand. In 2014, he made a film in Iraqi Kurdistan, shot at the frontline with ISIS, and in 2016 made another film in Tunisia about the country's political crisis and the war in Libya. In 2017, his book Murder of a Revolution, dedicated to the war in Syria, was published. He is also a co-founder of De Re Militari - the only journal in Bulgaria covering military conflicts and producing maps related to them.

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