A new round of UN-sponsored peace talks to end the ghastly civil war in Syria is scheduled to open in Paris on Friday, but even now it is not clear who will be attending. Islamic State will certainly not be invited, and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has not yet revealed whether he has invited the other main Islamist groups, the Nusra Front and its ideological twin and ally, Ahrar al-Sham.
Together these extreme Islamist groups account for up to 90 percent of the rebel forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, and even if invited they probably wouldn’t come. The remainder, a ragbag of small groups sometimes called the Free Syrian Army, might show up (under American pressure), or maybe not.
Assad’s representatives, by contrast, would certainly go to Paris, because he knows that there is no risk that he would be forced into a deal that removes him from power. His strategy for survival has worked well enough that he can now afford to negotiate with some of the rebels.
When peaceful mass protests demanding democracy spread to Syria in early 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring”, Assad’s forces responded at first with cautious violence. Snipers killed people in the unarmed crowds of protesters, but the army didn’t machine-gun the lot. Maybe he was just afraid the army wouldn’t obey his orders, but he may also have hoped that that level of intimidation would be enough to end the demonstrations.
However, Assad called all the protesters “terrorists” from the start – and he released hundreds of extreme Islamists from prison. This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to create a real armed Islamist rebellion. Then he could claim to be fighting foreign-backed “terrorism”, thus winning support from abroad and from Syria’s own frightened minorities.
Whether he intended from the start to push the country into full-scale civil war is impossible to know. At the very least, he quickly realised that the non-violent, non-sectarian protest movement was a greater threat to his survival than an armed uprising that would only be backed by Sunni Muslim Arabs (only 60 percent of the population).
Assad got some inadvertent help from Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, whose leaders wanted to see a Sunni sectarian victory in Syria, not an inclusive and non-sectarian democracy. So they lavished money and weapons on Sunni Arabs who were willing to fight the regime, thus undermining and discrediting the non-violent movement.
The slide from non-violent protest to armed uprising gave Assad an excuse to use far more violence. By October of 2011 his forces were bombing and shelling rebel-held areas of Syrian cities – and jihadi extremists, including many released from his jails, were taking over the rebel forces with the help of Saudi Arabian and Turkish money and guns.
So the rebellion fell largely into the hands of Sunni Arabs of the extremist Salafi persuasion. The country’s large non-Arab, non-Muslim and Shia Muslim minorities, together with much of its Sunni Arab population, reluctantly decided that Assad’s regime was the least bad option – and the result is the Syria we see today.
The exodus of refugees has reduced the population to 16 million, of whom 10 million, including almost all the minorities, live under government control. There are about two million Arabs in the Syrian part of Islamic State, another two million under the control of other rebel forces (also dominated by Sunni Arab Islamists), and two million Kurds who now have their own proto-state. It’s a calamity for Syria, but it means that the regime will survive.
There was a brief wobble last summer, when Islamist rebels enjoying increased support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia started driving the very tired Syrian army back on several fronts, but the Russian military intervention on Assad’s side in September stabilised the situation.
It’s now clear that nobody can win the war – but nobody can lose it either. Broadly speaking, Syria has been partitioned into four more or less sovereign territories. The government rules only one-fifth of Syria, but it includes most of the cities, industry and agriculture, and almost two-thirds of the population.
The Kurds control a band across the north of the country along the Turkish border. Islamic State runs a large swathe of sparsely populated territory in the east of the country. And the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, dominate the north-west behind the non-Islamist facade of the Jaysh al-Islam.
The “peace talks” that Russia has been promoting since it intervened are not really about creating a reunified post-Assad Syria. All Moscow is looking for (and increasingly Washington too) is a ceasefire between all the other players that leaves them in control of their own territory and isolates Islamic State.
Even that is probably too much to hope for. At Turkey’s insistence, the Kurds have not been invited to the talks. The Nusra Front will not show up either, and even the smaller non-Islamist rebel groups are threatening to boycott the talks – which would leave Assad’s regime looking like the only party interested in “peace”.
The war will continue for some time yet.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“Whether…movement”; and “There…situation”)