The international community is increasingly desperate to end the violence in Syria, with unabated fighting continuing across the country.
With the lack of a coherent and united strategy, not much has been achieved, playing into the hands of Syria’s brutal leader, Bashar al-Assad. The EU has been able to do little more than impose sanctions on the Assad regime. At a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers new sanctions, aimed at the Syrian state airline and additional members of the ruling circle, were agreed upon.
Turkey’s situation has becoming increasingly precarious and complicated as the Syrian crisis continues to impact the southeast of the country, with tensions between the two countries dangerously high: ongoing cross-border attacks from Syria; the closing of Turkey’s airspace to Syrian planes as a consequence of the incident on Oct. 10 when Turkey was forced to down a Syrian plan on route to Damascus over fears it was transporting arms from Russia; and most recently, the attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on a gas pipeline carrying Iranian gas to Turkey, which injured a number of Turkish soldiers. Moreover, Turkey now has more than 100,000 refugees in its territory and is struggling to cope. Calls from Turkey to Europe to help shoulder more to the burden have fallen on deaf ears.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is reported as saying the EU wants a development “that makes it possible for these hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to flee to return home. And that’s what they want as well.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle agreed with Bildt but added, “Naturally we are ready, as far as the situation allows, to take in refugees, for example for medical treatment.” The EU’s ongoing economic and political crisis has resulted in little appetite for a new flow of refugees.
The Syrian crisis is turning into a geostrategic, regional struggle, a struggle that is focused on the Sunni-Shiite divide. While Turkey seems to have been put into the same box as Saudi Arabia and Qatar – both key allies of the United States -- the Shiites seem to be getting closer to Russia.
This was underlined by the recent arms deal signed in Moscow last week between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Russian counterpart, Dimitri Medvedev. The deal is worth a massive $4.2 billion, with al-Maliki reaffirming Iraqi plans to purchase combat platforms and other military equipment from Moscow including MiG-29 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and a Pantsyr-S1 defense system. At the same time Moscow is also hoping to expand its energy sector presence in Iraq. Moscow, which has gone against the international tide by not wavering in its support of the Assad regime since the beginning of the crisis, seems to be trying to build up new alliances in the region while consolidating those it already has.
Yet greater cooperation, rather than regional rivalries and confrontation, is needed to break the deadlock. Remaining at odds on Syria is only serving to reinforce a proxy war. However, there seems to be a lot of optimism on the horizon following the appeal from the Arab League international peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, for Iran to help bring about a cease-fire. I have long believed that Iran should be brought into the discussions over the Syrian crisis. Unfortunately there has been little support from the international community, in particular from Washington, who views such an idea as giving Iran a “gift” for its bad behavior, which could lead to a weakening of the West’s hand in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, given the strong ties and influence Iran has over the Syrian leadership, Tehran is a key component to any deal. Brahimi wants the cease-fire to begin during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins on Oct. 25 and lasts for several days, which could allow some space for an internal political process to move forward. Since then, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has visited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and both Turkey and Iran have agreed to back Brahimi’s proposal. They are also open to forming a trilateral group including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, which would give the call for the cease-fire more weight. However, so far Saudi Arabia has refused to sit with Iran. And while it seems that Syria’s leadership has accepted the deal in principle, the lack of unified response for the opposition rebels complicates the situation.
The last attempt at a cease-fire, brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was a failure and led to Annan’s resignation. But of course that plan did not have Iran behind it. For any cease-fire to succeed it will take a lot of will power, and external parties must stop supplying the sides with arms. This will be an additional challenge, but if the cease-fire fails, the whole region risks implosion.
This article was published on Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21, 2012