The Institute for Politics and Society organized a public debate on the topic “Syrian Conflict in the ‘new’ geo-political setup – the main challenges and possible solutions” on December 8, 2016. The debate was moderated by Tereza Engelová, journalist and film maker who has lived close to Turkish-Syrian border between 2014/15. The panelists were: Michal Przedlacki, Polish humanitarian worker and documentarian who lived in Syrian Aleppo from 2012-2013 and worked for Czech humanitarian organization People in Need (Člověk v tísni). He is currently working in Syrian Kurdish Rojava. The other panelist was Ivan Gabal, Czech politician and sociologist. Gabal was one of the founding members of the Civic Forum, and has authored several publications. He has been a member of Czech parliament since 2013, focusing primarily on the security issues. He is a deputy chair of the parliamentary Security committee and a member of the Defence committee.
The civil war in Syria is the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. Estimated 450.000 people were killed and 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes. Sectarian split dominates the conflict not only within Syrian borders but is a major element of foreign involvement, as well. To the extent that some describe, the conflict as vital to reshaping of the future Middle Eastern map. Others call it an open field for the new phase of cold war. Big offensive on Mosul and Raqqa, possible fall of Daesh, inhuman bombing of Aleppo, advancement of Kurdish troops and Turkish backlash inside and outside of its borders, Russia nesting deep into the conflict and new American president. What will come out of this explosive cocktail? What is next for Syria? And how will it influence us in Europe?
The debate was centered around three time centerlines: the development of the Syrian conflict, current situation and the possible future development.
The first talking point was how had the panelists perceived the beginning of the revolution and what were the internal and external factors which turned revolution´s development into such bitter ends? Przedlacki commented that there was a general belief among the opposition that the international community wouldn’t turn its back on Syria. Despite many thinking that the war in Syria is too complex, he maintains that the war is relatively simple at its core. According to him it was not until a year and a half into the conflict, once the inaction of the international community could be seen and foreign jihadists began to play a major role within opposition.
Ivan Gabal said that the seeds of revolutionary discontent had existed long before 2011 but it were the examples of Egypt and Tunisia that led to the belief that something could really change. He also noted that the conflict has now lasted longer than WWII and rivals the breakup of Yugoslavia in terms of losses. Przedlacki attempted to give some context of the brutality of the fighting in Syria by calling Aleppo “today’s Stalingrad.”
The role of the international community and turning blind eye on the use of chemical weapons
Engelová, Przedlacki and Gabal all commented on how the release of fundamentalist prisoners by the Assad regime was a cold strategic move which allowed radical islamist groups to co-opt the opposition movement and involved more foreign elements into the fight. The failure of the international community to act after the use of chemical weapons by Syrian army was a turning point not only in Syrian conflict but in the recent history of warfare. Przedlacki condemned the inaction of the international community regarding the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, according to him turning the blind eye on it has given Assad impunity. And was a complete failure of the Security Council of the UN.
Foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict – Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, USA and Russia
Gabal pointed out that other states in the region did not really want to address the Syrian problem when it first started, such as Iraq which was more concerned with attempting to build its own infrastructure up and did not want to be bogged down in Syria. President Obama had wanted a potential use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” which would trigger American involvement, however, America ultimately wasn’t ready or willing to put boots on the Syrian ground because a) cautiousness after Iraq and Libyan involvement, b) USA has learned a lesson, not using force while not clear what the next step would be c) Syria has never been as much American point of interest as Russian
Przedlacki was highly critical of Russia’s involvement, saying that Russia gave clear message: “If you side with us, it is ok if you drown your cities in blood”. Aleppo has according to him essentially acted as an advertisement for Russian military might. He called for complete international isolation of Russia, noting the success of economic sanctions on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Both Gabal and Engelová seemed more hesitant to completely break off talks with Russia as now it has already become an important element of the possible solution of the conflict.
New American president and his impact on US Middle East policies
Donald Trump has made it clear that destroying the Islamic State is his priority, but Przedlacki maintains that Daesh is not the big issue, that the real thing affecting global security is Russia’s involvement. He sees as quite possible that Trump will make some sort of a deal with V. Putin on Syria. Will not include no-fly zones backed by H. Clinton. Russia together with Shia Iran (and supported by Shia Hizbolah) now plays a major role in the development of Syrian conflict with Turkey speaking for the oppositioning Sunni element of the conflict (Turkey, Qatar and Saudis supporting Sunni jihadi groups). Engelová and Gabal mentioned the potential threat of the Shia and Sunni clash in the whole region as Shias are getting more and more influential. The last part of the discussion was pointed at Turkey and its ambiguous role regarding Syria and Kurds. Kurdish issue and its solution will become a major issue in the future of Syrian conflict as it could drag Turkey (potentially NATO?) more into the conflict depending on Russia´s and American position towards the creation of autonomous Syrian Kurdistan.