The UN is unable to end the Syrian tragedy

Old and new Damascus, Syria (Photo by Shutterstock)

The United Nations is unable to find a solution to the tragedy in Syria, writes Ahmad Abdul-Rahman.

In a desperate attempt to resolve the complex Syrian situation, in October last year the United Nations dispatched its Special Envoy Geir Pedersen to Syria to revive the so-called Constitutional Committee from its two-year slumber. The Committee, which comprises three representative blocs - the opposition Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC), the "Middle Third" bloc (civil society), and the government (Assad regime) - will finally begin drafting constitutional reform.

In January 2019, Pedersen succeeded Staffan de Mistura as Special Envoy for Syria. He currently leads the UN's efforts to advance the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254, including facilitation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, and the 2012 Geneva Communiqué.

Unfortunately, Syria is not just a constitutional problem. The tragedy that has killed about half a million people and has made about half of the population refugees or displaced persons was not caused by a flawed constitution. Therefore, hoping to bring about an end to the war with a new constitution of which Pedersen and his aides dream, is highly unlikely.

Syria no longer exists as a nation-state. However, it cannot be considered entirely ungoverned. Different parts of Syria are under some degree of rule by foreign powers and their local allies which makes it a complex geopolitical problem that probably cannot be solved through legal manoeuvres.

Today, five different players have some control over Syrian territory. Russia operates one division, partly through private security companies, with the remnants of President Bashar al-Assad's regime as a domestic front. Turkey and its local Muslim Brotherhood allies dominate another segment. The US and some NATO allies control a third part, with the support of the local Kurds. The Islamic Republic of Iran controls a fourth section. ISIS elements and former enemies, who became allies among the anti-Assad groups, hold the fifth part. The five parts sometimes conflict.

As long as it can maintain its military presence, especially the bases in the Mediterranean, Russia is not interested in the political aspect of Syria. President Vladimir Putin is also determined not to allow Syria to become a base for exporting terrorism to parts of the Russian Federation where Muslims are a majority.

Putin may be wrong in thinking that the US is also preparing to withdraw from Syria. It is likely that such a move would have occurred under Donald Trump, or even President Joe Biden, had he not been shocked by his fiasco in Kabul. Putin views his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his only reliable partner in deciding the future of Syria. Turkey has a national security interest in creating a buffer zone along its border and preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish enclave in Syria.

Erdogan has discussed a new constitution for Syria on a number of occasions; the most recent was a summit in Sochi, Russia, where he wants a state religion. Putin wants a secular constitution for Syria.

The two leaders also differ on the issue of including the official language of the state in the new constitution. Erdogan wants Turkish to be recognized as one of the official languages ​​alongside Arabic, even though Turkish speakers constitute less than one per cent of the population. And Erdogan strongly opposes making Kurdish, which is spoken by about four per cent of Syrians, an official language,

Iran's Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the man responsible for promoting Iranian Shi'ism in Syria, suggests creating a new identity that includes Iranian Shi'ism alongside Alawite, Ismaili, and Druze beliefs. However, the scheme faces an obstacle in the form of the traditional Shi'ite authorities in Qom and Najaf that still consider the Syrian sects as heretics.

For its part, the US does not seem to have any long-term vision for what it is doing in Syria. Former President Trump expressed his desire to withdraw from Syria, dealing a major blow to the local Kurds and other US allies. Trump quickly backed off, and Biden followed suit, at least for the time being.

However, a clear US strategy to revive Syria as a nation-state is missing. Such a strategy is necessary to achieve regional peace and advance the long-term interests of the US and its allies. Without American leadership, it is unlikely that European powers will be able to end the Syrian tragedy.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023