By Reyhan Güner
Entering its fourth year, the Syrian civil war still remains unresolved. Even though Geneva II held promise for creating a common platform for the Syrian opposition, Bashar al-Assad’s regime and other participant parties to discuss Syria’s future, the efforts could not reach fruition. While a number of groups in the Syrian opposition have been strengthened and the war between the regime and opposition has escalated, the Ukrainian crisis into which the United States and Russia put their foreign policy efforts has pushed the Syrian crisis to a secondary importance. However, the ongoing crisis in Syria should be scrutinized carefully, particularly taking Geneva II and its aftermath into consideration.
Geneva II was held in response to Western stakeholders’ concerns that Geneva I did not guarantee the removal of al-Assad or a transitional government in Syria. Geneva II failed to address a transitional government as well, but helped the Syrian opposition engage in dialogue with each other, so that at least they tried to bear a degree of responsibility for the probability of Syria’s fragmentation.
There were a certain number of lessons that could be taken from the Geneva II meeting. One of the very first of those lessons was that there can be no resolution for Syria if the al-Assad regime remains in power. The unwillingness of the al-Assad regime’s stakeholders in Geneva II to reach a compromise with the Syrian opposition proved this fact once more. However, Geneva II was deemed an opportunity for the Syrian opposition to have back-channel meetings with the al-Assad regime’s participants.
The Syrian National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces which participated in the Geneva II talks on behalf of the Syrian opposition had been criticized for not representing the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition groups. For this reason, its legitimacy was questionable in many aspects. However, the national coalition put considerable effort into the talks. Even though the group could not convince representatives of the al-Assad regime on a solution, it won approval for its efforts to represent the demands of the Syrian opposition. Thus, the coalition proved its political abilities in a sense. Those efforts created a ripple effect among the Syrian opposition and increased the level of trust in the national coalition. The lesson to be taken here is that if a group represents the demands of different opposition groups comprehensibly, the opposition can find a middle ground for the solution of many political issues even though it seems impossible for now. Therefore, a stronger opposition against the al-Assad regime could be formed.
Political divisions and the lack of a common military strategy among opposition groups were the reasons why a transitional government has not been formed in Syria up until today as well. Meanwhile, the attitude of international backers should be underlined. While the U.S., Turkey and some of the Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supporting different opposition groups, Russia and Iran, with the Hezbollah card, have been supporting the al-Assad regime. Foreign backers’ support for the different sides of the civil war has been deepening the crisis by creating a proxy-war effect in the country.
Even after Geneva II, the situation did not change. Nowadays, the U.S. appears to be interested in maintaining the status quo and justifying this with the claim that Syria would otherwise be taken over by radical groups. For Russia, which is blocking the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, giving aid to the al-Assad regime is still an ongoing policy. Russia’s interests with regard to Syria are based on two important issues: One is Russia’s naval base in Tartus, and the other is its international position vis-à-vis the U.S. Iran, which is using the Hezbollah card in Syria in order to back the al-Assad regime, is trying to protect a Shiite regime in its neighborhood and to pursue a sectarian policy in Syria.
Considering the situation of opposition groups in Syria, one could observe that there is not a dramatic change, but a diversification of the groups. Before Geneva II, the main clashes were occurring between the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army and the al-Assad regime.
Nowadays, new groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which disassociated itself from al-Qaeda, are coming to the forefront. Furthermore, new coalitions are appearing in the country.
The increasing cooperation between the PYD and Sutoro, a Syriac Christian militia, reveals that new combinations and collaborations of ideologically, ethnically or even religiously different groups might be on the agenda in the upcoming days. This will make the Syrian crisis much more thorny to overcome and difficult to analyze. The fragile process in Syria is still waiting for a solution, which is becoming more difficult as time passes.
Reyhan Güner is a researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).