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Can Syria’s Eight Years of War Come to an End?

Nov 28, 2019
  • Wang Jin

    Associate Research Professor, Institute of American Studies, CICIR

Eight years have passed since war broke out in Syria, and when it will end nobody knows. Just recently, Syrian government troops clashed with Turkish troops in northern Syrian border towns.

The conflicts have evolved, starting with a peaceful uprising that escalated to civil war and then to a proxy war, with the participation of extremist forces and big powers. Its complexity has reached an extraordinary level. The contest in Syria has never been a factor of the internal dynamics of Syria alone but of competition between external forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump does not have a consistent Syria policy. He has not fully understood the logic of keeping troops in Syria and has been uncomfortable with the idea. Having learned lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is not willing to get involved too much in a war in Syria, let alone bear the burden of reconstruction. As the war situation has changed, the U.S. position has also changed from “using the Geneva process to overthrow the Assad regime” to “no longer seeking to overthrow the Assad regime” and only requiring that the Syrian government make “a complete change.”

The level of U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, has been insufficient to decisively affect the war situation. After several policy iterations, Trump began the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops again. Although hundreds of U.S. troops will be left to protect Syria’s northern oil fields and prevent the return of ISIS, Trump’s inconsistent policies have weakened U.S. influence on the country’s future.

By contrast, Russia's influence in Syria has expanded. Syria has an important geographical position in Russia's Middle East calculations. In September 2015, Russia dispatched troops to protect the Assad regime and safeguard its Tartus military port. It has helped the government recover lost ground and also established the Khmeimim Air Base.

Russia’s influence in the Middle East has greatly expanded as Syrian government forces have taken control of most of the country. At the same time, with progress on the battlefield, Russia called on Iran, Turkey and Syria to hold the Astana peace talks in January 2017. Now the talks have logged 13 rounds, gradually marginalizing the United States in the peace process.

Turkey is another important factor affecting the situation in Syria. To safeguard the security of the Turkey-Syria border and crack down on the Kurdish forces in northern areas, it has not been entirely in harmony with Russia and Iran, but it has had good coordination with them. After engaging on the battlefield and in mediation, Turkey has achieved a good result in northern Syria. Both the United States and Russia have promised to move the Kurds 30 kilometers from the border to establish a security buffer zone. If the Kurds enter the zone, Turkey will send troops again.

Iran is a staunch supporter of the Assad regime because of religious and geopolitical factors. It provides much as $6 billion of financial support annually, and sent an expeditionary force to Syria to relieve the military. Without Iran’s support, the Assad regime would not have been able to survive. At the same time, Iran has expanded its influence by establishing military bases in Syria from none to nearly a dozen. Hezbollah has also taken the opportunity to establish a military presence in Syria to expand its influence.

Israel, on the other hand, firmly opposes Iran’s expansion of power, saying it cannot tolerate Iran turning Syria into a new and threatening front line. The Israeli army has contemplated attacking Iran’s military presence in Syria as a “primary objective.”

The fundamental reason for Syria’s seemingly endless war is that other countries put their own national interests above the interests and well-being of the Syrian people.

To end the Syrian crisis as soon as possible, it is particularly important to propose a “China Plan.”

First, cease-fires in Syria should be consolidated. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish armed forces in northern Syria, as well as the fighting between the government and the opposition, have brought suffering to the Syrian people. China supports the cease-fire agreement framed by the United States, Russia and Turkey, and also appreciates the work of the Astana Peace Process, which advocates a cease-fire. A cease-fire is a prerequisite for peace talks.

Second, Syria should be handed back to the Syrians themselves. The so-called proxy war is the primary source of suffering. China adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and believes that the internal factors within a country are decisive factors in political development. The imposition of external influence will only lead to a fragile regime. It is not appropriate for foreign forces to forcibly support a certain faction when conditions are not ripe, let alone to forcibly promote “civil society” when stability has not yet been achieved. Syrians’ future should be decided by themselves.

Third, the working process of the Syrian Constitutional Commission should be strongly supported and coordinated by the international community. The first meeting of the 150-member SCC has just concluded at the United Nations. China supports the resolution of the Syrian issue within the framework of the United Nations and hopes the solution will take the concerns of all parties into account. If the commission cannot put an end to the Syrian crisis, China also supports a broader political agenda dominated by Syrian themselves, including not only the new Syrian Constitution but also cease-fire resolutions and the release of detainees.

Ending Syria’s eight-year war cannot be achieved easily. Only when major external forces truly proceed from the interests of Syrians can political stability be realized. Only in this way can others avoid backfires.

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