The new creation of a national Syrian coalition to make the opposition groups more coherent could propel a much-needed breakthrough in the country’s 20-month civil war, Jean-Marie Guéhenno a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, told an audience there on Nov. 13.
It has been a costly affair humanitarian-wise: close to 40,000 people dead, more than two million displaced and 400,000 refugees. Yet, the recent steps to form the opposition inside and outside Syria, calling it the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, indicates that the warring parties may be getting tired and ready for a change, Guéhenno said. As a former deputy for Kofi Annan, the previous joint envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, Guéhenno has been a close insider. (Annan’s replacement is Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian veteran UN diplomat.)
The Syria situation represents a “triple fracture” of global, regional and national proportions, he added, noting that the president of his country, France, has not only recognized the new coalition as the sole legitimate representative of Syria but may also arm it. (Britain, Turkey and some Arab countries have subsequently recognized it.)
Globally, the conflict reveals a strongly divided UN Security Council, which is a major factor behind the extent of the crisis, Guéhenno said. In turn, the war is also a collateral victim of the Libyan rebellion, where NATO, acting on a Security Council resolution in 2011, bombed the country after its leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, threatened to slaughter his own people.
In authorizing the attack, the council invoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, which aims to shield civilians from harm by their own government. But Guéhenno said that the council had not expected Qaddafi to last as long as he did and that R2P was now linked to regime change, provoking China and Russia to veto later resolutions to oust Syria’s leadership.
Russia and China’s refusal to allow intervention in Syria – including removing President Bashir al-Assad by outside force – has crippled the council.
“There is not a credible way forward around which the permanent members of the Security Council can really rally,” Guéhenno said.
China’s crucial concern is regional stability and preventing the war from affecting the international economy negatively. Russia’s interests are far more complex: Syria is its last strong ally in the Middle East; Russia has a base in the port of Tartus and weapons contracts with the government; and, most decisively, Russian leaders fear that Islamic extremists will replace Assad.
“They don’t take the word of Western powers” that Syria will be fine once the war is over, Guéhenno said of Russia and China, but Russia is all right with regime change if it’s done by Syrians.
The regional ramifications – a cold war of sorts – plagues the crisis as well, reflecting tensions between Iran and Gulf nations (primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and their competition for hegemony in the Middle East, played out on Syrian turf. Turkey is another regional axis, possessing a long border with Syria and absorbing thousands of its refugees. Turkey is also hypersensitive to its role in the war because of a possible Kurdish uprising within Syria and its effect on Kurds inside Turkey.
Israel is a “spectator” to the conflict for now, though its long-term interests will surely evolve, Guéhenno said.
Western powers are caught between their outrage over the humanitarian losses and their priority of containing nuclear threats by Iran, which dominate their every step over Syria.
Within Syria, beyond the fracture of the main political foes of government versus rebels, a generation gap is also contributing to the conflict, Guéhenno said, clarifying the militias’ urge to fight.
It is justice, he said, and not so much democratic aspirations, behind the opposition’s ethos, with corruption in top leadership feeding the antigovernment push.
Guéhenno, who was chief of UN peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008, offered hope. He referred, for example, to the June 30 declaration formulated by Annan and adopted in Geneva that rallied the Security Council on many levels, including the most basic: the use of the word “transition” in terms of Syrian leadership.
He also said that Iran “must be in the tent” of negotiations rather than outside it, while the US, France and Britain are adamant that Iran are part of the problem and therefore cannot be part of the solution.
“I personally disagree,” Guéhenno said, adding that no side in the conflict will accept defeat.
What to conclude? Sunnis have mostly defected from the Syrian Army of about 27,000 officers, leaving a corps of Alawites, staunch Assad supporters and a situation that could presage a collapse, Guéhenno said.
But a “quick ending” is unlikely, although financial pressures on the government side are mounting.
Meanwhile, the Security Council should “remain engaged” as the crisis careens along a nonsequential path – cease-fires, fighting, negotiations. The job of Brahimi is vital as he continues “working the council” and continues his listening tour among regional and internal powers. Eventually, even a UN peacekeeping force could be readied to arrive in Syria.