Syria's endless 'turning points'.
One can almost imagine Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uttering these words from Twain each time he reads how his regime is about to collapse and the civil war in Syria is finally entering its last stage. I am not sure if we are at a turning point in Syria because we have been at turning points several times before and nothing has changed in terms of human suffering.
What is hard to deny, however, is that the external dynamics in the region are in flux. There are clear signs of movement in regional and international diplomacy. Whether we are at a saturation point or a turning point is still unclear. This is why we need to be humble in our expectations and realistic in our analysis. It is well-known that the Syrian Civil War is also a major theater of confrontation for proxies. The regional dimension is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as leaders of the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite elements. The international or global dimension is a proxy confrontation between Russia and the United States.
Three factors seem to have instigated the new flurry of diplomatic activity. First, the regime is facing new setbacks and losing more and more territory, together with moral and financial backing. The Syrian government has been shaken by a new series of military defeats and has growing difficulty recruiting for its forces, even among members of Mr. Assad's minority Alawite sect. Having lost large sections of the country to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and various rebel forces, it is concentrating its remaining forces in Damascus and other crucial cities in western Syria. Second, ISIL is becoming the victim of its own success as the international coalition against it is expanding. And finally, the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States is showing signs of having a regional impact on the ground in terms of pushing the Saudis to talk to Russia.
This is mainly why the world media is full of stories about diplomats from Russia, the United States and several Middle Eastern powers engaged in a burst of diplomatic activity. Among other objectives, they seem to be trying to head off a catastrophic collapse of Syria that could further strengthen ISIL. The most interesting development came when Moscow responded favorably to Saudi openings about the growing power of Iran. It is important to note that the Russians were also very much willing to talk to the Saudis, primarily about their growing concerns about ISIL and other Jihadist groups' infiltration in the North Caucasus.
Although the Iranian influence in Syria is a major concern for Riyadh, nothing is more threatening to the survival of the Saudi regime than a place much closer to home where the Saudi military is actively involved: Yemen. This is why the Saudis have asked Russia to show some leverage with Iran not only in Syria but perhaps more importantly in Yemen.
As a result, Russia has played the most prominent public role so far in the new regional and international diplomacy. Moscow was instrumental in organizing a meeting between the Syrian regime and high-level Saudi officials in Oman. Despite all these developments, realism should caution us that no breakthroughs can be expected soon. There remain fundamental disconnects between the diplomatic activity in the region and the stalemate in the fighting on the ground.
In the meantime, as suggested by The New York Times, different parties claim that their adversaries are coming round to their own point of view. Russian and Iranian officials, for instance, suggest that Saudi Arabia, the United States and allies like Turkey are coming to realize that fighting terrorism is more important than changing the regime by ousting Assad. Conversely, American, Saudi and Turkish officials, who contend that Assad's rule drives radicalism, say that Russia has grown more willing to see him replaced. Even if both sides are right, it is only the internal dynamics in Syria that will drive a lasting peace, not international diplomacy.
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