War and peace by proxy? The impacts of outside actors on the war in Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on December 8, 2015, about the status of the Syrian conflict and the possibility of negotiating peace in Vienna next year. The panelists were Marwan Kabalan, head of policy analysis at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies; Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group; and Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Elephants on the ground, now in the room

Barakat opened the discussion by reminding the audience that the civil war in Syria will soon enter its fifth year, with up to 250,000 people dead and half the Syrian population displaced. Recent multilateral meetings in Vienna have demonstrated renewed diplomatic determination to negotiate peace for Syria, but significant differences remain between the conflict’s principal power-brokers. Barakat began by asking the panelists how the meeting in Riyadh with Syrian opposition groups differs from previous efforts.

Kabalan pointed out that the meeting received support from the United States, Russia, Turkey, and most other major players in the conflict—except Iran, which fears the anti-Iranian sentiment of the opposition. The Riyadh meeting hosted both opposition and armed groups, making this the first time armed groups, such as Jaysh al-Islam (JI) and Ahrar al-Sham (AS), participate in negotiations. Kabalan hoped that the opposition will agree on a broadly defined political solution and find a way to unify their message.

Lister added that the meeting in Riyadh marks a shift in Western policy towards many Syrian armed groups. The West now recognizes that, despite their ideology, these groups are too popular and powerful to be excluded from negotiations. He noted that the Vienna talks will be qualitatively more serious than prior negotiations and will coincide with a nationwide ceasefire. It is logistically impossible to impose such a ceasefire without including main armed groups such as JI and AS. Lister, therefore, urged for the inclusion of more armed groups among opposition representatives.

Bonsey highlighted what he sees as the difference between armed Islamic revolutionary factions such as JI and AS and armed Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State group (IS) and Nusra Front (NF). Unlike Salafi-jihadis, he believes that JI and AS acknowledge the right of Syrians to choose their own government, would uphold an inclusive approach to non-Muslim minorities, and would not pursue a transnational agenda.

Who compromises, when?

What about the recent Russian intervention? Bonsey maintained that Russia’s intervention renewed interest in moving the political process forward. However, like Geneva I and II, disagreements between its main parties on Assad’s future in Syria will undermine the Vienna talks. Meanwhile, all warring parties in Syria believe in the possibility of a military victory; making the war on the ground potentially endless. Momentum, therefore, must come from regional and international actors, which could end the current stalemate.

In contrast, Kabalan contended that, besides IS and Assad, most actors in Syria do not believe the conflict has a military solution because it is a proxy war; they are not simply confronting Assad, but regional powers as well. Syrian actors believe that a political solution must occur to achieve victory. This may happen in Vienna.

Lister noted that Russia’s role in the conflict is often underestimated. But now its extent is evident. For instance, Russia persuaded Assad to destroy his chemical weapons in October 2013, and Moscow intervened to save (not aid) Assad with airstrikes a few months ago. The opposition in Syria gradually began uniting its message in preparation for negotiations with Assad—the intervention ended that possibility. Lister argued that Russia will remain in Syria for the long haul and its actions have a greater impact on Assad than Iran. Bonsey added that Russia, nevertheless, is less clear about its position on Assad’s fate than Iran, which considers his loss as an existential threat. Thus, the Russians seem more likely to compromise than Iran.

Refugees as pawns

Bonsey offered a quick summary of the Kurdish scene, explaining that Kurdish forces have consolidated large portions of northern Syria. Their main players are the Abdullah Öcalan-linked Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD) on one hand, and a disparate group of Kurdish parties—which coalesced with Masoud Barzani’s party in Iraq to form the Kurdistan National Council (KNC)—on the other. There’s a rift between these two players. He added that this is an interesting time for the Kurdish movement. They consider themselves neutral, opposing Assad and the Islamists; allying with Iran and Russia and the United States; and having difficult relations with Arabs and Turks. The United States now holds leverage over the PYD’s armed fighters, which it should use, Bonsey argued.

Directing the discussion towards the refugee crisis, Barakat noted that only forty percent of the refugees flowing to Europe are actually Syrian. He asked Kabalan whether Europe will start focusing on the bigger picture of instability in the region. Kabalan noted that Europe has had a shortsighted approach to its neighborhood, neglecting the roots of the problems that force people to flee. He further argued that Assad uses refugees to punish Europe and drive it toward another shortsighted decision: his retention of power. He effectively succeeded, Kabalan said. The rhetoric on Syria slowly shifted away from Assad toward refugees and terrorism, making European support for his presidency a real possibility.

Lister agreed, noting that whether due to a deliberate Assad strategy or not, the refugee issue sees the West contemplating partitioning Syria, which he described as another shortsighted decision that would keep Assad in power. In fact, other developments suggest that Assad began laying the ground for a clean partition of Syria as a worst case scenario. For instance, in August 2015, he facilitated a land swap in Zabadani, where anti-Assad civilians were exchanged with loyalists from Idlib; slowly making the area along the Lebanese-Syrian border an opposition-free zone.

Bonsey, in a final remark, added that Russia embraces these strategies. He contended that it targets opposition groups in an attempt to displace more people and exacerbate the refugee crisis. Again, within the pro-Assad alliance, Russia is the actor with the least to lose by reaching a compromise with the opposition. Yet, Bonsey said, its relentless support for Assad and his policies makes it almost impossible to imagine it playing a positive role in the transition.