5 Obstacles to Peace in Syria

Ten months after the bloodshed in Syria was formally recognized as a civil war by the Red Cross, Moscow and Washington are finally working together to end it, at least in terms of public diplomacy.

MOSCOW, May 24 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) - Ten months after the bloodshed in Syria was formally recognized as a civil war by the Red Cross, Moscow and Washington are finally working together to end it, at least in terms of public diplomacy. The plan is to hold a conference – tentatively scheduled for June – where the Syrian regime and the opposition would negotiate, work out a transitional government and reroute the war into a political settlement.

But a similar plan was actually approved by both sides and a handful of international players at a conference in Geneva last year – and died in gunfire within weeks because nobody stuck to it. Will it really work better this time? RIA Novosti contacted leading Russian experts on the Middle East who spelled out five problems that stand between Syria and peace.

- The regime fears a purge

Peace in Syria would require that part of the ruling establishment step down – not just President Bashar Assad (who has so far adamantly refused to go), but also the leadership of the army and the security services, says Vladimir Akhmedov of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. But that means the officials in question would have to voluntarily give up power – a rare thing in itself – and the rebels to compromise and offer safety guarantees to the people they have repeatedly threatened to execute.

- The mujahedeen want no compromise

Apart from the many moderates supporting the opposition, Syria is teeming with armed Islamists, many of them professional jihadists from abroad. Some Islamist groups, such as the powerful Syrian Liberation Front, are capable of dialogue, but hardliners, like al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front or the Syrian Islamic Front, want Assad dead and sharia law imposed, and they are highly unlikely to compromise. According to Boris Dolgov, also of the Institute of Oriental Studies, the extremists can only be uprooted if the moderates in the opposition and the government team up – a tall order, considering the deep-seated enmity between the two.

- The moderates are weak and fractured

The Syrian conflict in fact began, back in March 2011, as a peaceful drive for democratic change, and moderates still dominate in the opposition’s political wing – especially in the broad Syrian National Coalition (SNC), recognized as a representative of the Syrian people by 20 Western and Arab countries, including the United States, France, Germany, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But after protests were ruthlessly suppressed by authorities and deteriorated into civil war, the liberals lost much of their leverage and have been gradually sidelined by Kalashnikov-toting radicals. For negotiations to succeed, the liberals need to recapture the spotlight – not an easy task with the lack of accord between various opposition organizations and jousting for leadership within the SNC.

- Iran and Hezbollah need Assad

Damascus is Iran's main ally in the Middle East, and a supply route to its other ally, the party-cum-militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, passes through Syrian territory. This means Iran, its partners and its geopolitical enemies all have a stake in the conflict:

•    Hezbollah troops are fighting for Assad, and Iran was reported to have deployed in Syria members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a special wing of the Iranian military. According to some media reports, 120,000 volunteers are on standby in Iran and ready to join the fray to prevent Assad’s ouster.

•    The Arab League – most of whose 22 members are Sunnite-dominated states that traditionally oppose Shiite Iran – are believed to be supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, mainly the jihadists. They would not support a plan to sideline the religious radicals in favor of liberals, many of whom are secular-minded, though they may be convinced not to interfere too much, Akhmedov believes.

•    Iran’s other enemy is the United States, which, along with the EU, has been providing the Syrian rebels with everything but firearms – medicines, communication devices, armored vehicles. Openly arming Assad's enemies is “Plan B” for the West in case the upcoming negotiations fall through, says Akhmedov, but that’s hardly conducive to peace talks.

- How will passions be cooled?

The intensity and nature of the violence in Syria has become, in one analyst’s words, “medieval.” Most of the atrocities seem to be committed by foreign jihadists, a small core of government forces and hardened criminals who fled prisons in the confusion of wartime, experts say. But the rebel filmed in April eating the heart and liver of an enemy soldier was an ordinary ethnic Syrian, reportedly driven crazy by the abuse suffered by his friends and family at the hands of Assad’s troops. “The country is poisoned by violence,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. No civil conflict, however ferocious, has lasted forever – take, for example, Rwanda, the Balkans or the Caucasus – but ending (or at least “freezing”) such wars has required intense outside intervention,  sometimes in the form of a peace-keeping force. In Syria’s case, none of the tentative peace brokers, including Moscow and Washington, has so far shown a willingness to send in troops. And letting passions cool on their own, so to speak, could take decades.

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