By Saba Sadri
Monday September 28th marked the beginning of the General Debate of the United Nations’ 70th General Assembly, and the war in Syria appeared to be the central issue of the day. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon opened the debate by calling for a diplomatic push to resolve the war, which is well into its fourth year, and for a unified effort to remedy the current refugee crisis. He went on to cite the need for an effective global response to the “blatant brutality” of the so-called “Islamic State” and other extremist groups.
The Secretary General’s speech set the day’s tone since the majority of the following addresses, delivered by an ensemble of the world’s most powerful leaders, focused on the issue of Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and French President François Hollande all stressed the need to end the conflict in Syria, help the country’s massive displaced population, and defeat the Islamic State, but the crucial area, where differences persisted, was disagreement on the current and future status of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The international disagreement over the fate of Assad has been the main roadblock to resolving the crisis in Syria since its outbreak in 2011. Putin has used Russia’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council to keep any form of UN-backed intervention off the table, and has bolstered the Assad regime with economic and military aid that has exponentially increased in the past weeks and has recently evolved into direct military involvement through air strikes. Meanwhile, support from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have also managed to keep the Syrian government afloat.
The speeches at the General Assembly reiterated the staunch positions of Russia and Iran as both Putin and Rouhani claimed that Assad was the only legitimate authority in Syria and that collaboration with his forces would be necessary to combat the Islamic State. On the other hand, Obama and Hollande reasserted their standpoint that Assad has no place in Syria’s future, with Hollande insiting that the Syrian President “is part of the problem, [and thus] cannot be part of the solution.” Although each party’s declared position may insinuate a stalemate, the transformation of the international political landscape in recent months has made collaboration and compromise in Syria increasingly necessary and attractive for the United States, Europe, Russia and Iran.
President Obama, fresh from his diplomatic victory in sealing the nuclear deal with Iran, is unlikely to want to leave office with ongoing and inconclusive military operations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, a terrorist group he set out “to degrade, and ultimately destroy,” while Bashar al-Assad, a “tyrant” whose removal he has repeatedly called for, remains in power. Furthermore, Obama’s decision not to intervene militarily despite the use of chemical weapons in Syria arguably marked a low-point in his presidency. Failure to resolve the conflict in Syria before his term ends will symbolize a significant blow to the United States’ soft power and influence abroad while also drawing out the fight against IS in Iraq.
Time is working against Obama as his second term comes to a close and IS retains control over its territories in Syria and Iraq despite the US-led coalition’s aerial bombardment campaign. Air strikes have contained IS from making further territorial gains, but it is becoming increasingly clear that a ground presence is necessary to dislodge the extremist group. However, given Obama’s weariness towards committing US ground troops to the conflict, the unreliable performance of the Iraqi military, and the recent revelation that only a handful of US-trained Syrian rebels were still fighting as most seem to have surrendered their equipment to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, the United States will likely be open to compromise and cooperation to avoid further embarrassments and setbacks on the ground.
The pressure is also building in Europe as the endless flow of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, among other countries, have created a humanitarian crisis which is testing the limits of European unity. Although European states are attempting to address the hundreds of thousands who have arrived at their borders, the source of the problem is Syria. France and Britain demonstrated their military commitment to combating IS with their recent air strikes in Syria, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that he would tolerate Assad holding a transitional role until a new government was formed signals an openness and an acknowledgement in the Western camp that negotiations on the issue are the only way forward.
Meanwhile, Putin likely sees Syria as a way to rapprochement with the West. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine not only drew plenty of condemnation at the United Nations, but also led to the current state of deteriorated relations and continued economic sanctions. With a ceasefire holding in Ukraine and Crimea firmly under his control, Putin appears to have gotten away with his transgressions and now seeks to alleviate tensions and have sanctions lifted by offering a path forward in Syria. Putin’s military buildup in Syria and veto power in the UN Security Council testifies to his influence over not only Syria, but also the fact that he holds the keys to the resolution of the conflict. His proposal for a coalition of “a broad range of forces” with a UN Resolution to fight the Islamic State in conjunction with a one-on-one meeting with President Obama the next day—the first between the two leaders since before the annexation of Crimea—suggest that Putin is serious, to some degree, about finding a solution.
Iran is the final major player, as in addition to committing units of its elite Quds force to the conflict, it also holds significant influence over the Shiite militias and Hezbollah fighters conducting operations in Syria and Iraq. Iran’s considerable assets on the ground grant it an advantage at the negotiating table. The recent nuclear deal and the easing of economic sanctions have empowered a more moderate and pragmatic government that is open to dealing with the West and is representative of a maturing Iranian population eager to break out of a period of isolation and rejoin the international community. Cooperation in Syria, and possibly Iraq, offers Iran another opportunity to further reintegrate internationally as well as to demonstrate its status as a regional power, vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.
The coming weeks will reveal the degree of sincerity with which each leader address the UN General Assembly. However, self-interest is a powerful motivator. As each party realizes that the consequences of the war cannot be contained within the Middle East, and that they have more to gain by cooperating, a compromise will likely be reached.
Featured image copyright: UN Geneva, CC Flickr. License can be found here.