The Impact of Geography on Politics in the Syrian Negotiations II

The Impact of Geography on Politics in the Syrian Negotiations II
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Renas Sino

December 20, 2017



In my previous article, The Impact of Geography on Politics in the Syrian Negotiations I, I discussed the influence of geography on politics (geopolitics). Geopolitics considers geographical areas as a chessboard. Each party tries to advance and eliminate the opposing party’s king. However, in order to achieve this, spaces on the chessboard need to be blocked in order to restrict the opponent’s ability to move freely, and one must overcome the various impediments to the goal of eliminating the king.



It is known that the provision of soldiers on both sides on the chessboard will reduce the amount of empty space, and make the board overcrowded, but the constant change in positions brought on by new alignments can lead to concentration on one side at the expense of the other.  



The Russians are adept at chess yet they often seem to lose the geopolitical game to the Americans. So far, it seems that the regime’s allies are intent on protecting their alleged king (Bashar al-Assad). His allies realize that the elimination of the king is enough to end the game, and in Assad’s case, the king represents the moral and political structure of the Syrian regime.



At this point, we appear to be entering into a new phase in the war, a Syrian Cold War, and as such, it is necessary to change the tools we use when the phases change. The tools of this war are clear to the regime and its allies: build on the various stages of Astana talks; make use of the anti-terrorism case to justify their cause; push for the transformation of the Syrian issue from the international sphere to the regional level based not in Geneva but in Sochi in Russia; and exploit the tensions in the region in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and the Gulf states.


While Assad and his allies are gaining strength, the Syrian opposition does not appear as powerful as it did in 2013, when it refused to participate in negotiations. The opposition was making substantial gains at the time, and therefore it was paranoid that the negotiations at that time were an effort to protect the regime. However, as the opposition weakened, it agreed to participate in the negotiations. Nevertheless, the Syrian opposition still has the power and ability to influence various issues, and can use their multiple sources of leverage as effective tools for achieving political change, if they deal with them pragmatically. The most useful of these tools, which would have the strongest impact on achieving the desired change, are:


I. Building up the case. After all the changes in the balance of power that have taken place on the ground, the position of the Syrian opposition is no longer as strong as it was before. In addition to their weakened stance, they lost a historic opportunity in 2013 when they refused to negotiate at the height of their power and progress. Therefore, all previous tools are no longer feasible. This situation requires them to build a legal human rights case through which all violations committed by the Assad regime and its allies are documented to be used as evidences. Some of the violations committed by the Assad regime have been described as war crimes, especially the use of chemical weapons. In this pursuit, the Syrian opposition would be wise to make use of the reports issued by the International Commissions of Inquiry. It should be noted, however, that violations committed during the Syrian war are not limited to the Assad regime alone; other parties have also committed many violations, some of which amount to war crimes as well.


II. Building new alliances. It is imperative that the Syrian opposition rearrange its alliances again, and search for common ground with other parties involved in the conflict. All the opposition’s alliances over the past years have proven to be incapable of producing any useful result. Let us assume that the Group of Friends of the Syrian People are 100% sincere in their support for Syrians; creating a geopolitical alliance that includes the areas controlled by the SDF, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian opposition, in addition to the restoration of areas controlled by jihadist groups will increase the opposition's control to 55.2% of Syria’s total area. Building such a negotiating power will not only overthrow the Assad regime, but will also reduce the Russian and Iranian influence in the region. However, this remains a pipe dream, given the conflict of interests as well as tension and mistrust between forces on the ground.



III. Investing in UN resolutions. The Syrian opposition should not repeat its mistakes by rejecting international resolutions. On the contrary, it should make practical and effective use of all international resolutions adopted, particularly Geneva 1 and Resolution 2254 (2015). Any resolution issued will have a significant impact on the future of Syria, such as the report of the International Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons. Besides respecting established resolutions, the Syrian opposition should also establish executive frameworks for these resolutions through the issues such as the constitution and election. As together with the security framework, these two negotiating files are the basis for determining the fate and shape of the Syrian state in the future.IV. The reconstruction of Syria. According to recent estimations, Syria needs more than $150 billion for reconstruction. Fortunately for the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime’s allies, Russia and Iran, do not have the same economic potential that the Group of Friends of the Syrian People does in regard to potential reconstruction. The opposition must skillfully take political advantage of this reality. They must understand the economic interests, especially for that of the European Union (EU), and they should create a realistic strategy for reconstruction in Syria.



V. Refugees. The refugee issue is of great importance; no less than the reconstruction issue.  The issue of refugees is linked to a political agreement and to reconstruction as well. Although the politicization of the refugee issue bears some unethical aspects, the opposition can be the refugees’ legitimate advocate; defending their rights and, as a result, gaining their support. In order to achieve this, the opposition must work with all refugees without discrimination, regardless of their affiliations.



VI. Iran's influence. Since Iran has become a regional power, there is no question that its influence cannot be avoided. In addition, Iran's role should not be overlooked by the international community, which appears to be preparing to develop a long-term strategy to contain the country, minimize its influence in the Middle East, and fix the balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.  Given these facts, the Syrian opposition must stay aware of the situation and be cautious so as not to be used as a mere tool in the fight against Iranian influence. The issue is Syria’s sovereignty, which cannot be restored by merely minimizing Iranian influence. There is still the matter of Russian, American, Turkish, and Saudi influence, all of which violate Syrian sovereignty in one way or another. Therefore, the Syrian opposition’s fight against Iranian influence on the basis of sectarianism is considered to be erroneous. Focusing on Iran will cause the opposition to lose sight of the true goal: the restoration of Syrian sovereignty. It could also lead to a carbon copy of the Syrian regime, which could deliberately cultivate sectarianism to its advantage, and lead to their isolation from other segments of the Syrian society.



VII. Mobilization and Advocacy. It is well known that the Assad regime and its allies possess an information and propaganda machine for mobilization in areas where decisions are being made. The Syrian opposition has always been inadequate in this regard, being unable to establish professional media platforms and unwilling to cooperate with the Syrians overseas. The opposition has also been unable to benefit from the efforts made by civil organizations, and been unable to develop any effective advocacy plans themselves. Considering the aforementioned issues, the Syrian opposition should make greater advocacy efforts in the capitals where strategic decision-making occurs. They also have to reconsider their relationship with some of these capitals in question.


VIII. The need to activate the civil movement. The Syrian opposition must reactivate the civil movement, but utilize more sophisticated tools, engaging all segments of Syrian society. It must completely cease to think about returning to arms and violence after these methods have proved a failure.


Finally, all conflicts in the world have gone through different stages. Each stage has its own set of tools.  The Syrian opposition must develop its tools and change its methodologies in order to achieve its objectives. These changes must be profound and inclusive, representing the values it believes in if it is ever to build a democratic Syria.




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