The Syrian Uprising and the Scramble for Geneva II


by Hilal Khashan

The media described the British Parliament’s negative vote on the principle of military action against the Syrian regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons as a blow to the country’s special relationship with the United States.[1] The seemingly unprecedented vote that “… was both shocking and shaming”[2] has actually given a new meaning to the two countries’ strategic comradeship. The events have shown that the Obama Administration never wanted to get directly involved in the Syrian armed conflict. Its publicity stunt about hurling a few tomahawk missiles to punish the Syrian regime revealed President Barack Obama’s embarrassment about drawing a red line in the sand regarding using chemical weapons in Syria’s drawn-out conflict. Obama must be grateful to the British Parliament for giving him an alibi for his aversion to military action.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the U.S. approach to it has been invariably characterized by caution and non-commitment. Even after Washington finally determined that Bashar Assad had lost his legitimacy, it continued to argue in favor of a political settlement that brought together the regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. The regime’s unwavering decision to crush the protesters further complicated the uprising and precluded its peaceful resolution. Regional and international powers’ fear that Assad regime’s collapse would create a vacuum swayed them to react half-heartedly to its unfettered atrocities and intransigence.

The plethora of disparate and sparingly armed opposition groups proved incapable of dislodging a cohesive regime core, buttressed by Russia, as well as Iran and its Iraqi and Lebanese proxies. In view of the country’s crowded political space, one can rule out the ability of a single political actor to prevail in post-Assad Syria. It is in this knotty atmosphere that preparations for the Geneva II Middle East peace conference move clumsily.

The murky road to Geneva II is still fraught with problems and unforeseeable pitfalls. The adamant and seemingly irreconcilable positions of the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) for attending the much-anticipated conference are non-starters and require revision. If the Syrian regime refuses to engage the comparatively moderate SNC unless it acquiesces to Assad’s presidency as non-negotiable, it will have nobody within the broad opposition spectrum to meet face-to-face with at the negotiating table. Similarly, the SNC’s demand that Assad steps down as a precondition to participation in the talks is unlikely to win the consent of its Arab and Western backers, and also not to mention Russia’s outright rejection. All rhetoric aside, the political fate of Assad is unlikely to obstruct the march to Geneva. Just like the U.S. and Russia had different interpretations for the United Nations Security Council resolution 2118 on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, the regime in Damascus and the SNC can go to Geneva with different perspectives on the role of Assad in shaping post-conflict Syria. The antagonists’ focus on the fate of Assad often distracts attention from more important aspects of the lingering bloody conflict.

Even when Geneva II does take place, as it is eventually bound to, it certainly will not be the panacea to end the turmoil in Syria. At best it can open a new chapter in its conflict with additional risks and opportunities. The Syrian uprising lost its early innocence, when crowds of freedom-hungry demonstrators shied away from demanding regime change, and only pleaded for basic reforms. The Syrian regime, ever so hungry to be included in the list of countries victimized by transnational jihadist groups, quickly blamed al-Qaeda-linked militants of masquerading as innocuous protesters and attacking military and security personnel. It reasoned that this would pseudo-legitimize its use of overbearing violence to crush the hitherto peaceful protests. The regime cried wolf too often until the Islamic militant beast finally arrived at the battle scene, and became the most efficient component of the myriad groups fighting the regular army and its Shiite allies. Even though the number of jihadists in Syria and their ratio vis-à-vis the total anti-regime forces is anybody’s guess, the indisputable fact is that there is no shortage of fighters to keep the pointless war raging.

Assad’s recalcitrance and political incompetence obscured his vision and dragged him into a deep quagmire of his own making. He completely and gratuitously squandered his late father’s achievements of stabilizing Syria and preventing its neighbors from subversive meddling in its domestic affairs. Thanks to his shrewd machinations, Hafiz Assad succeeded in transforming Syria from an arena of regional contestation into a regional power. Bashar, the horizon of whose worldview does not seem to reach beyond Damascus’ Mount Qasioun, reintroduced foreign intervention in Syria at such a scale that must have horrified his father in his resting place.

In terms of reforming the country’s political system to become participatory and answerable to the people, the Syrian uprising ended before its first anniversary. What we have here right now is a localized regional war punctuated by intermittent reverberations in Iraq and Lebanon. The reality on the ground suggests that Geneva II will succeed more in redefining the balance of power in the Middle East than ushering in a workable political arrangement for post-Assad Syria.

The outcome of the military confrontation in Syria is also bound to determine the regional balance of power. The geographical location of the combatants in Syria and their reference countries draws the map of both their interests and their apprehensions. On the regime’s side, Hezbollah’s troop deployment focuses on defending Damascus and the highway that links it to the Alawite heartland along the coast. This is the reason why it fought to capture al-Qusayr last June, because its area is contiguous with Hezbollah’s bastion in east Lebanon, and also because it overlooks the vital Homs road juncture that leads to almost everywhere in Syria. Iran is keen on securing a lifeline via Syria for its Lebanese Shiite client in the post-Assad period. Hezbollah is interested in the border area with Syria because it wants to ensure that it does not become a staging ground against its presence in Lebanon.

Saudi influence is strongest among jihadist rebel groups fighting government forces in Greater Damascus (or Rif Damascus). Recently, 43 such armed factions joined ranks to create Jaysh al-Islam [Islam’s army] to form the nucleus of a strong national army. Jaysh al-Islam is fighting an attrition battle against Assad’s troops, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade. It has been most successful in Daraa in southwest Syria, where Saudi vital interests are too clear to hide. Syria in itself is not that important to Saudi Arabia were it not for Iran’s regional offensive that aims at crowning it as the region’s leading power. Assad’s clumsy handling of his country’s protest movement ended up attracting many Saudi young men to fight in Syria. The Saudi authorities have been keen on ensuring that al-Qaeda-type jihadists such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) do not proliferate either in Greater Damascus or in Syria’s southwest, which are close to the Saudi hinterland. Saudi financial and military assistance to the rebels primarily targets jihadist groups that are doctrinally compatible with Saudi religious vision.

The formation of Jaysh al-Islam was preceded few days earlier by the rallying of 13 Islamic groups in northern Syria to reject the legitimacy of the SNC and its Saudi handpicked leader Ahmad al-Jarba, who hails from Qamishli’s Shammar tribe, whose roots are found in Saudi Arabia’s Najd province. The northern Islamic alliance includes, in addition to al-Nusra, the Brotherhood leaning at-Tawhid Brigade. Turkey finds jihadist movements in northern Syria useful proxies in combating the potentially irredentist Kurdish movements, especially in northeastern Syria where they come into direct contact with compatriots in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is noticeable that at-Tawhid Brigade could not establish itself near the capital or the Jordanian borders. Both the Saudis and Jordanian perceive the Brotherhood as their mortal ideological competitor, and the fact that Qatar and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party are favorably predisposed towards the Brotherhood explains the reason at-Tawhid Brigade flourishes in the north. The abrupt polarization of Syria’s jihadists in the midst of the hurried talks to decide if Geneva II can convene in mid-November attests to their desire to place themselves on the political map of Syria and to guard against schemes to eliminate them from the picture.

The unwillingness of the U.S. to confront the Syrian regime, and the looming rapprochement between Washington and Tehran exacerbates the Saudi royals’ proclivity to anxiety and encourage them to change their tactics from accommodation to aggressiveness. The ageing Saudi political elites are not adept at confrontation, but King Abdullah’s decision to cancel his country’s annual address at the United Nations General Assembly bespeaks the royals’ utter frustration with the Obama administration and the responsibility on their shoulders to stop Iran before it swamps them. Saudi Arabia’s predicament lies in that it does not have clear-cut regional objectives beyond staying away from trouble, and its sudden display of vigor appears to be more reactive than Iran’s goal-directed and proactive regional policy.

Geneva II may offer a roadmap for Syria. Modern history tells us that since a roadmap is not set in stone, any of its signatories can easily break off it. In addition, a real threat that the groups participating in the peace conference will end up fighting the others that were banned from it looms. The complexity of Syrian society and its overlap with the broader problems of the region render Geneva II only a signpost along the country’s long and turbulent path to redefining its identity. If Egypt is still a source of inspiration for many Syrians, the former’s regressive uprising may foretell that Syria’s recovery time is going to be a long road ahead.

Images by Freedom House


[1] For example, see The Guardian, 30 Aug. 2013.

[2] The Economist, 30 Aug. 2013.

About the Author:

Hilal Khashan is Professor of Political Science and chair of the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.