Middle East

Syria: Interview with Richard Gowan

Homs, Syria, on Feb. 28, 2012. (Photo: Freedom House)

A joint effort between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has begun destroying Syria's chemical weapons production equipment. By June 30, 2014, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is to be completed and verified. Meanwhile, Syria's civil war rages on. More than 115,000 people are dead. Peaceful political activists, journalists, humanitarian workers, doctors and lawyers are being tortured and disappeared by the Syrian government. The refugee crisis grows direr by the day. And diplomatic efforts at the international level appear disconnected from a collection of rebel forces that has become increasingly fractionalized and radicalized on the ground.

Worldpress.org Senior Editor Joshua Pringle spoke to Richard Gowan, research director at the Center on International Cooperation, about the complexity of addressing the crisis.  

Joshua Pringle: A new team of chemical weapons experts has entered Damascus to further the process of sequestering and demolishing Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Reports suggest that this process is off to a good start, but how difficult is it going to be to conduct these operations in a hot war zone?

Richard Gowan: The fundamental question is whether rebel forces, especially radical Islamist factions, allow the process to go forward unhindered. I think there is a very significant risk that rebel forces will try to disrupt this process, especially if they see significant numbers of Russian personnel involved in the destruction of chemical weapons, because for the hard-line rebels the Russians are almost certainly fair game. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among many rebel groups that the United States did not strike Assad in late August or early September, and I think they might take out their frustration on the inspectors who are now in Syria.

JP: Thirteen Islamist groups, led by the Nusra Front, now say that the Syrian National Coalition doesn't represent them, and that they would not recognize any government formed outside of Syria or any government not based on Islam. How much more difficult does that make this process, when we're talking not about an opposition, but oppositions?

RG: It's very hard to track all the rebel groups. By some estimates there are 800 or more distinct militias in Syria. It complicates not only the destruction of the chemical weapons, but also all diplomatic efforts to find a longer-term solution to the war. In September, when the agreement on chemical weapons was reached, there was talk of holding a peace conference in October. There's now talk of holding it in November. It isn't clear that the Syrian regime will actually talk to many rebel groups. And there are clearly huge splits amongst the rebels about whether to go to Geneva at all. My concern is that a group of moderate opposition factions will go to Geneva, and they could even agree to a ceasefire with the government, but it wouldn't hold on the ground. So the splintering of the rebel forces is a huge obstacle to any peacemaking effort in Syria.

JP: Initial peace talks have included the proposal of a transitional government in Syria. So if in mid-November a conference takes place and moderate factions of the opposition are there, and all these other international actors are there, all with varying interests, and everyone agrees on something like a transitional government, what then? Al Qaeda and its ideological allies make up roughly 35 percent of the rebel forces. If they're not on board, then what happens?

RG: You may end up with an agreement on a piece of paper that has no bearing on military events on the ground. There are many previous civil wars, such as those in the former Yugoslavia, where everyone was happy to agree to a peace deal and then break it immediately. There is a risk that there will be apparent diplomatic progress in Geneva at some point in the future, but the parties negotiating there won't be representative of the main rebel factions. This is a tragedy because if there had been more international pressure for negotiations between the government and rebels 18 months ago or even a year ago, it would have been easier to get really serious players around the table. But as you say, a very significant faction of rebels has become radicalized.

Probably the only way to bring those radical elements under control is through putting pressure on some of their patrons in the Middle East, including the Saudis. It isn't clear at the moment whether the Saudis would support or disrupt a peace process, because they are very keen to see this war continue and do damage to Assad and his backers in Iran.

JP: How would one pressure the Saudis or other backers?

RG: Well, it's not easy, given Saudi Arabia's wealth, and given the fact that the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are deeply unhappy with the recent U.S. opening towards Iran. So it is not clear whether Washington or any of its allies have the leverage to make the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs sincerely support a peace process in Syria.

JP: The U.N. Security Council has urged Syria to allow free passage of humanitarian aid along key routes. To what extent will this urging make a difference?

RG: This was a positive development, and I think that a lot of commentators had feared that Russia would make a deal on the chemical weapons issue but would not be prepared to make any further steps towards resolving the crisis. The fact that the Russians backed that statement, having previously blocked a couple of similar statements over the summer, was a positive sign.

I also think there is some evidence—although it's very difficult to tell from outside the country—that the Syrian military is beginning to feel greater pressure from at least some of the rebel groups. It is finding the fighting harder than it was at the start of the year. That may also be an incentive for the Syrian government to allow humanitarian aid through. If there's a sense of uncertainty in the Syrian government about the military situation, they may be more open to making positive gestures like allowing aid into besieged communities. Nonetheless, I don't think we should be under any illusion that we're going to see large international forces deploying to guard aid convoys. That's not really on the table at the moment.

JP: U.S. intelligence officials believe that Syria is becoming a safe haven for Islamic extremists in the way that northwestern Pakistan has been in recent years. Positive developments aside, could this continue to spiral into a worse situation?

RG: Yes. I think the situation is in many ways getting worse, and I don't think the diplomatic success over the chemical weapons issues should distract us from that. … We're moving into a period of stalemate, which could continue for a significant period of time unless, due to a mix of military and economic pressures, the Assad regime implodes, or unless the internecine fighting between the rebel groups escalates to the stage where they turn attention away from Assad and simply start fighting each other. That could lead to what some, including Lakhdar Brahimi, have called the Somalia situation, in which basically large parts of Syria descend into a war of all against all.

The question I have is, is it conceivable that the emergence of powerful al-Qaeda-affiliated forces in Syria could actually force Western powers and Turkey, which is right there on the border, to bite the bullet and intervene? I don't think we can completely rule that out. I think there is at least a very high awareness in Western capitals of the dangers of Syria becoming an al-Qaeda haven. This isn't just a concern for the United States. It's a huge concern for European countries, not least because there's a lot of evidence that European Islamist citizens are going to Syria to fight. There's a great concern that they could become even further radicalized and then carry out terrorist attacks within Europe.

JP: According to U.N. figures, 3.2 million Syrians are expected to be registered as refugees by the end of the year. That number is expected to top 5 million next year. By these projections, more than half of Syria's population will be either internally or externally displaced by the end of next year. Obviously surrounding countries are getting overloaded. To what extent can the U.N. keep this from becoming an unmanageable problem?

RG: This is a major source of concern, and I think that the pressure that the refugee populations place on Lebanon and Jordan in particular is a real strategic worry. The U.N. has not, by any means, received all the money that it has asked for to deal with the refugee crisis. There's a striking shortfall of financial aid to the relief effort. Friends and colleagues of mine from the humanitarian community come back from some of those border countries really shocked by the strain that aid officials are under.

Even if you were to have a peace agreement tomorrow, there's a high probability that very large numbers of Syrians would remain outside Syria. Many would be concerned about returning to their towns and villages in cases where there'd been ethnic cleansing, for example. Experience shows that refugee communities can become almost completely permanent, and I think we are seeing worrying signs of that, such as in the case of Jordan, where one camp seems to be morphing, slowly but surely, into a near-permanent city. I think that the refugee crisis will be a lasting scar, whatever the outcome of the war.

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