by Eldar Mamedov
Recently Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg sent a letter to the UN Security Council demanding that Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria end the use of barrel bombs. The foreign ministry of a European country that still maintains a diplomatic presence in Damascus, one of the few, asked for the opinion of its embassy on the matter. The embassy recommended to sign the letter: barrel bombs are indiscriminate and kill an awful lot of civilians. But the embassy also advised its government to condemn the opposition’s use of improvised mortar bombs (known as “hell cannons”) against the neighborhoods under government control. Diplomats say that the rebels have specifically targeted Christian areas for their perceived support for the Assad regime. Back in Europe, the foreign ministry officials admitted that they “haven’t heard anything” about the “hell cannons.”
This is only one example of how dysfunctional EU policy toward Syria has become, as a European Parliament (EP) delegation that visited Lebanon in mid-June learned. An early EU decision to cut off all ties with the Assad regime has not been vindicated by the developments on the ground. Not only has the regime survived, but radical jihadist elements have increasingly dominated the opposition to Assad. The EU, however, failed to modify its strategy accordingly. As a result, regional actors with often disruptive and sectarian agendas have taken center stage. And individual EU member states have also pursued their own policies, which are not necessarily in the interests of the EU as a whole.
The latest example of the distorting influence of the regional actors is the Syrian opposition’s failure to accept the “freeze plan” in Aleppo and surrounding areas proposed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura as a first step toward a negotiated solution. In the UN assessment, the opposition´s foreign sponsors—mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—bear primary responsibility for this failure, because they have insisted on removing Assad from power as a pre-condition to any agreements.
Such a position is not new. What is new, however, is that these sponsors do not hide anymore that they work directly with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda´s affiliate in Syria. They still pretend, however, that al-Nusra is the face of the “moderate opposition,” even though this assertion stems from a PR operation, widely believed to be Qatari-driven and carried out in Western mainstream media and think-tanks. An interview al-Nusra’s chief Al-Golani gave to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera was part of this PR campaign, but it backfired when Al-Golani made it clear that al-Nusra is al-Qaeda and expressed borderline genocidal views on Alawites.
The Dangers of Supporting Jihad
To make matters more complicated, even those rebel groups that are not part of al-Nusra, espouse deeply troubling views. According to a credible UN source in Damascus, a fighter from an obscure group Jaysh al-Ababil active in Syria´s south, has reported that “Syrian people deserve a democracy like in Saudi Arabia.” He boasted that the group “gets anything it needs” from Jordan and that a major offensive to take Damascus from the south, as well as the north, will be launched “very soon.”
If the US and EU had real strategy to end the war they would, in addition to pressuring Assad, demand that their regional allies curb the flow of weapons and recruits to terrorist groups. But they can’t credibly do that, since they are involved in this effort themselves. According to Conflicts Forum, the southern rebel front is managed from US Centcom’s Forward Command in Jordan, which is run jointly by American, Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari, and British officers.
Why is the UK (and France) enabling this new jihadist offensive, which would only create more instability from the European perspective? One explanation offered by the EU diplomats was that, with the long-term US pivot towards Asia, UK, and France could seek to assume the role of new “protectors” of the Gulf monarchies. Arms sales and diplomatic alignment on Syria are meant to cement this new alliance. The problem is that if London and Paris believe that supporting al-Nusra is an acceptable price for courting the Saudis and Qataris, they are deluding themselves. They can’t control al-Nusra. As the massacre of the Druze villagers this month has shown, this organization can be just as nasty as the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
Supporting jihadists also makes little practical sense. It makes neither a political solution nor a military victory possible at an acceptable cost. It simply forces the Assad regime to adjust its military strategy by regrouping its forces in order to defend Damascus and the Western part of the country, the “useful Syria” where up to 75% of its population live. Even as the army retreats from cities such as Palmyra and Idlib, possibly soon to be followed by Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo, the unfailing backing of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah means that the regime is unlikely to collapse soon.
Syrians Pay the Costs
That means that the war and destruction will proceed at frightening cost to the Syrians. Syria is falling apart, and quickly. Already half the country is under the control of jihadists of either IS or Jabhat al-Nusra. About half the population is displaced or exiled. Since 2011, the life expectancy has dropped by 20 years, from 75 to 55. As in Iraq in 1990s, sanctions imposed on Syria have primarily hurt not the regime but the people, especially the middle class. Sanctions and war tore apart the social fabric of Syria, destroyed its once proud secularism and accentuated sectarianism. As one Syrian citizen told the EP delegation, he had to flee Aleppo and leave behind the big industrial plant he owned because of his Christian Maronite background. Still he considers himself lucky, since he managed to escape, while al-Nusra has singled out Christian Armenians because of their perceived closer ties with the Assad regime.
Many Syrians expressed bitterness and frustration at what they see as the West´s indifference to the destruction of their country, including its rich cultural and historical heritage. Although noting that the West’s airstrikes helped the Kurdish militias to repel IS attacks in Kobane, they express bewilderment as to why similar action was not taken to prevent IS from taking Palmyra. These Syrians, whose voices are often neglected, do not want to see their country partitioned along sectarian lines. Nor do they want any military foreign presence there, and that includes not only IS and al-Nusra, but also Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The EU is an influential international actor that can play a role in putting an end to Syria’s destruction should it muster the political will to do so. For that, it must act as a coherent pro-peace force, not a function of the individual strategies of UK, France, or regional allies. It should stop playing favorites among local actors. As the EP resolution of April 29, 2015 says, an acceptable solution could only come from “an inclusive and Syrian-led political process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 2012, leading to a genuine political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future.” To that end, as the resolution says, all key actors—the Assad regime, the opposition, UNSC members, and regional powers including Iran—should be brought to the table. Only such an inclusive approach, and not short-term calculations and delusions, can bring peace to Syria.
Photo: al-Nusra Front fighters in Syria
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.