The tension over Ukraine has all but buried the chance of peace in Syria. The Syrian people, still being massacred every day, are paying the price for the awkward stalemate between the West and Russia.
Despite its growing irrelevance, the Syrian National Council is still diligently going about its business. While the horrific daily massacres continue in the country and newer global crises take the world’s attention, the Syrian opposition group, ensconced over a thousand kilometers away from Damascus in an Istanbul hotel, met over the weekend and elected a new political body and named new health, education, and interior ministers.
These would presumably be for an interim cabinet that now seems less likely to govern anything than ever before. The Geneva II peace talks were abandoned without a resolution at the end of January, and with the military escalation in Ukraine deepening the gulf between the US and Russia in the meantime, no one has raised the prospect of repeating the exercise any time soon.
In fact, the crisis over the Crimean peninsula has played into the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and delivered yet another blow to the rebel forces. According to Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, an “opposition source” received news that the US administration was not only holding back arms shipments to rebel forces, but “was postponing announcing its policy on Syria so as not to heighten tensions with Russia.”
Whether this particular detail is true or not, Jonathan Eyal, international studies director at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute, says it fits the West’s current priorities. “There is a clear American determination to keep the question of Syria separate from the downturn in the relationship between Russia and the United States,” he told DW. “The last thing the US administration needs now is for its Syria policy to subjected to critical analysis in the media.”
In other words, the Syrian conflict, which has claimed 140,000 lives since peaceful protests turned into violent suppression in 2011, is being put on the back burner for the sake of keeping peace with Russia, which continues to support Assad and oppose foreign intervention in Syria. “The Western powers can only confront Russia on a number of issues at a given time,” said Marc Pierini, former EU diplomat in Damascus and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “Crimea gets priority because of the accompanying threat – or perception thereof – of a Russian military incursion in Ukraine.”
This reflects a real fear that any confrontation with Russia could spin into a worldwide conflict. “There is a feeling that we must not adopt a set of positions which become irreversible and which result in a new Cold War,” said Eyal. In other words, the West wants to give Russia room to backpedal if necessary.
There are other elements in this bloody trade-off, chief among these is the decades-old dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “The US administration is also treading a very fine line on Iran,” said Eyal. “And it knows that any breakdown in the US-Russian deal over Syria is likely to complicate the handling of Iran.”
But other factors aside, Barack Obama’s indecision on Syria is much older than the Crimea crisis. Late last summer the US president was nothing if not relieved when Vladimir Putin’s offer to get Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons meant that he could avoid military intervention in the country. “One could argue that the US administration didn’t have a coherent policy about Syria anyway,” said Eyal. “One could argue that the original sacrifice of Syria’s long-term interests happened in early September or late August last year, when President Obama had a supposed red line which he then ignored.”
Geneva is dead
The Russians, for their part, also have every interest in keeping the Crimean crisis confined to Europe. What cooperation there is in Syria – the deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons – has remained in place even as tension has mounted elsewhere. But the cost of this cooperation has been the sidelining of the Syrian National Coalition, and Syria’s fate is now effectively being brokered over the heads of the Syrian people.
The prospect of replacing Assad with an interim government that includes the SNC (this is, after all, the official US ambition) is virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, the Syrian president is exploiting the SNC’s weakness by apparently preparing a new presidential election to legitimize his hold on power. “No one in the West would take such a stunt seriously, but it could get support from Russia, if only for the sake of defying the West in another way,” said Pierini.
“And of course the price is being paid by the people of Syria,” added Eyal.
All this has only one outcome – the Geneva talks will remain on ice while the violence goes on: Assad’s air-strikes and barrel-bombings, executions by extremist Islamist forces, incursions of Hezbollah gunmen (funded by Iran) against them, and the potential spread of the conflict into Lebanon. “I do not see the Geneva talks going anywhere at this stage,” Pierini told DW. “Russia has no interest in letting them go anywhere.”