Syria: No aid. No peace?

13 february 2014

Dr. Ewald Böhlke, Director, Berthold Beitz Center, German Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. Pavel Baev, Research Professor, Peace Research Institue Oslo (PRIO)

Resume: A silver bullet to end the conflict remains elusive but Russia can help bring about a base for success in politics and security

As Sochi’s Winter Olympic dream continues to unfold this week with competitors from all over the world facing each other on the Black Sea coast, another set of competing parties are convening in Geneva. They gather for a second round of talks aimed at charting Syria’s uncertain future. As has been in the run up to the games issues of security and Russia’s role in global affairs will not be far from the discussions in Switzerland.

A political rather than a military solution to the conflict has always been core to Russia’s policy on the crisis. Through peace talks we have already seen tentative successes around the humanitarian situation in Homs. In itself, access to the besieged areas of Homs is important. However, the wider humanitarian catastrophe carries with it threats to the peace process but also to security and stability in Syria and in Russia itself.

This tragedy threatens to undermine the fragile political space the Syrian opposition has and helps foster a menacing dynamic to the conflict. Syria’s turbulent conflict has seen extremist groups spawn and be propelled into positions of power in the country. They have fed off the destabilisation the conflict has produced while also deepening it. In their rise, humanitarian access for all Syrians has deteriorated, with over 250’000 people trapped in besieged areas and over two million in ‘hard to reach areas’. This situation will continue to undermine the political process advocated by Russia and helps bolster the positions extremists have steadily assumed.

To give the peace talks a chance to prosper as well as alleviating the conditions that foster extremism stronger pressure needs to be placed on the Syrian government to facilitate a radical improvement of the humanitarian conditions throughout the country.

Military means cannot remain the preferred choice of tactic in confronting these groups. Other approaches need to be prioritised. If they are not we will continue to see ample opportunity for terrorism to take hold. That would only move the Syrian Government, the mainstream opposition and Russia, further away from realising a peaceful Syria.

While extremist groups threaten the viability of the peace talks they also constitute a security threat to the region and to Russia itself. Russia has cause for concern at the reports of several hundred fighters from the North Caucasus taking up the arms in Syria. The alleged attackers behind the heinous bombings in Volgograd alluded to the war in Syria as a motivating factor for them. We know terrorists’ motivations and capabilities are not bound by international borders. The threat they then pose to security in the region and to Russia warrants serious attention.

Nightmare scenarios like what some have called the ‘Somalisation’ of the Syrian state are not remote possibilities. It would be folly to dismiss the idea of mini states arising, becoming havens for extremists. These groups and individuals could in turn threaten the stability of region but Russia’s security also, as had happened with Afghanistan in the 1990s.

A political deal underpinned by radical improvements in the humanitarian situation would not completely avoid such scenarios. We can deduce though that the lack of one will surely exacerbate the chaos that fosters such outcomes. Those with peace as their goal would be moved further away from realising their aim while those with extremist and militaristic views would see their hands strengthened. Now is the time to take further action on the humanitarian front that could help quell these threats and offer the peace process the greatest opportunity to succeed. Supporters of terrorism need to be curtailed but the extreme conditions the conflict is producing will be sufficient to sustain their existence and operational prowess.

Russia led efforts to dismantle chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. It can now further aid civilians and advance its security interests. For this, it should use its leverage to improve humanitarian access for Syrians across the country. During this Olympic moment Russia is ideally placed to take such steps.

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