Today’s Zaman – December 23, 2015 – A new milestone in the Syrian crisis

A new milestone was reached last week in the Syrian crisis. On Dec. 18 the UN Security Council adopted an important resolution on this subject. Its salient points can be summarized as follows:
– A target date of “early January 2016” is fixed for the initiation of the talks for a lasting political settlement in Syria.
– A nationwide cease-fire is expected to be enforced as soon as the talks start.
– The cease-fire will not apply to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra and all other al-Qaeda linked groups.
– A new constitution will be drafted and free and fair elections will be held under UN supervision within 18 months.
– The political transition will be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led and ultimately the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.
– The continuity of governmental institutions is re-emphasized.
Despite this agreement, many hurdles have yet to be overcome:
There is no unanimity on the future role of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Iran insist that he should be entitled to run in prospective elections. The remaining countries oppose this position to varying degrees. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the fiercest opponents of this idea. Nobody expects that these elections will be faultless; however, they have to be the best that the international community can offer the Syrians in the present circumstances. But there is a contradiction in agreeing on the one hand that the future of Syria will be decided by the Syrians and, on the other, opposing Assad assuming the presidency if he emerges successful in an election.
The second difficulty will be encountered on the identification of moderate and extremist opposition groups. This distinction is important because if a Syrian opposition group is identified as extremist, it will not be able to be part of the negotiation process. But more important than this is that the cease-fire will not cover these groups. In other words, the government forces, and probably the Russian and Iranian forces, will have a free hand to continue to attack them.
Jordan has been asked to help the UN Security Council draw up a list of these groups. This is a demanding job for Jordan because, after all, it is a subjective assessment to characterize an opposition group as extremist or moderate. The extremists will not only be excluded from the negotiation process but they will also become a legitimate target of both the Syrian regime and the international community. When we keep in mind that the degree of extremism is not easy to assess, the line to be drawn between them cannot be but arbitrary. These groups will hold Jordan responsible for their exclusion and will probably make Jordan pay for it.
The third difficulty will be encountered in enforcing a cease-fire. Similar efforts in the past failed to produce the expected results. The big difference this time is that, with the exception of a few countries, the international community seems to be more determined to put an end to the activities of extremist groups.
The Security Council resolution also has implications on Turkey’s Syria policy. First and foremost is the question of establishing a safe zone in northern Syria between Jerablus and Marea. This cherished project of Turkey already had difficulty being materialized after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced bluntly that Turkey’s military actions in Syria would be significantly curtailed. Now, with this Security Council resolution, Turkey’s project seems to be all the more difficult to carry out as the resolution points out that “the safe havens established in Syria by various opposition groups have to be eradicated.”
Second, Turkey’s insistent refusal to deal with Assad may now limit its role in the transition process as Assad will be one of the main actors in this process. If Assad manages to stay in power after the transition, the animosity between Turkey and Syria will probably continue with many consequences. In this case, an improvement in Turkish-Syrian relations will have to be postponed to the more distant future.

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