European Council on Foreign Relations

Will cooler heads prevail on Syria?

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Qatar’s gung-ho foreign policy (discussed in greater depth in ECFR’s latest Gulf Analysis) is so often depicted by big moves and big money. Before the Syrian uprising in 2011, Gulf powers, including Qatar, had sought a rapprochement of sorts with Damascus, hoping to move Syria out of Iran’s regional orbit and closer to itself. Since then, Qatar, more so than its heavyweight neighbour Saudi Arabia, has pursued a policy for Bashar al-Assad’s head at seemingly whatever cost. This has meant that, rather than actually delivering on humanitarian commitments and seeking a de-escalation of violence against Syria's people, Qatar’s insistence to continue arming opposition groups looks increasingly like dangerously amateurish brinksmanship. 

Qatar may be vying for an endgame that outstrips the ambitions of any of its Gulf neighbours and allies, but they are not likely to defeat Assad decisively anytime soon. With the hubris around possible chemical weapons usage and Israeli airstrikes on Damascus, affirmations of Hezbollah’s engagement on the ground, the attritional nature of the Syrian war urgently demands de-escalation. But to do that requires that Qatar, among others, refocus its energies away from a short-sighted embrace of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its dominance of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Qatar bears the brunt of responsibility for ousting Moaz al-Khatib, the most credible Syrian opposition figure to date, from the SNC leadership in what was ultimately a childish manoeuvre that undermined what fledgling credibility the SNC was developing. 

But developments in Europe and the Middle East suggest love for the SNC, still fundamentally unable to resolve its core dilemmas of legitimacy and inclusivity, is wearing thin. As direct intervention from abroad remains firmly off the table, the only meaningful policy worth pursuing is one of de-escalation. Of priority should be a more expansive response to the humanitarian needs in Lebanon and Jordan and resisting further attempts in Europe and the US to pump weapons into Syria.  In recent days, Egypt has dispatched its chargé d’affaires back to Damascus and received the Syrian ambassador. The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, was in Amman for discussions over Syria, and US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's latest tête-à-tête concluded in an agreement to convene an international conference between the Syrian regime and the opposition. 

The SNC has predictably responded with a declaration that they will not enter any negotiations without Assad first resigning. Western governments seem to be inching back from their position that Assad must leave power; rightly so, as a politically negotiated transition of power can only be that – demanding a particular outcome, particularly when you are not on the winning side of the argument – is fatuous. The military balance of power has not shifted decisively away from the regime; indeed, the Assad government and forces feel confident that they are winning this war. The diplomatic efforts built up over the last year should not be sidelined or scuppered. Even Qatar, which by all accounts has refused to engage with Iran over Syria in the last two years, may be attempting something of a more mature detente with a planned visit of its foreign minister to Tehran next week.

The proliferation of armed actors and the brutality of Syrian regime forces should not breed complacency about negotiating an end to the conflict. The promise of a centralised command of a “Free Syrian Army” is an illusion, and corralling the interests of ill-defined armed actors fuelled by competing agendas is formidable. So too is the notion that the Assad regime might agree to a ceasefire or other confidence-building measures such as prisoner releases. But building a broader international consensus and embracing a broader spectrum of Syrian constituencies and actors is a critical first step towards a settlement. Assad and his bloody handmaidens have much to answer for, but if outside actors continue to inflame the dynamics of war they too are complicit in the continuing suffering of Syria.

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