The Syrian uprising five years on

Alive and kicking

After five years of war, violence and endless suffering, Syrian civil society is sending a clear message to Geneva: "We will not stop until Assad is gone." Assad, however, has no intention of relinquishing power, invoking of all things the wishes of the Syrian people. Kristin Helberg analyses the situation

The news from Syria these days sounds hopeful. Russia is pulling out most of its troops, fewer bombs are being dropped, negotiations are being conducted in Geneva and the revolution goes on. Revolution? Yes, that's right. What began five years ago was not a civil war but a Syrian uprising against dictatorship. Protests spread within weeks to encompass the entire country.

Five years and 470,000 deaths later, the picture is still the same. People are demonstrating peacefully. As soon as the inhabitants of opposition areas are bombed less and supplied better, they start painting posters again, waving revolutionary flags, singing and dancing. Since the beginning of the cease-fire in late February, protests have been held in more than 100 towns, from Dael in the south to Azaz in the north.

″Ideas cannot be killed″

Even in the towns surrounding Damascus, such as Douma, Jobar, Muadamiye and Daraya, which have been locked down for years, were subject to poison gas attacks in August 2013, and where otherwise barrel bombs have rained down week after week on marketplaces, hospitals and schools, thousands are taking to the streets. "The revolution is an idea, and ideas cannot be killed," one poster proclaims. "Assad can break the ceasefire but not the indomitable spirit of the revolution," says another.

The international community, which can see in Syria only the terrorism of IS, Assad's bombs and the "streams of refugees", is rubbing its eyes. Civilian resistance is alive and kicking. Ordinary citizens – Assad's "terrorists controlled from abroad" – are still demanding the overthrow of the regime. They are demonstrating not for obvious goals like something to eat or speedy peace, but for a political vision. A "democratic Syria", "freedom for all".

Anti-Assad demonstration in Aleppo′s Tarik al-Bab neighbourhood (photo: picture-alliance/abaca/AA)
"Assad can break the ceasefire but not the indomitable spirit of the revolution": in Idlib and Aleppo, supporters of the Syrian opposition are using the ceasefire to resume their protests against the regime

One positive development in Syria is therefore the unity of Assad's opponents. All opposition forces – both in the country and outside, moderates and radicals alike, secular as well as Islamist quarters, both rebels and activists – are of the same mind: that a political transition in Syria can only work without Assad and those carrying out his commands.

The result is the sole piece of good news for Geneva. Because there is now a link between politicians and fighters, between diplomacy and the street: all are sitting together directly or indirectly at one and the same table among the many in Geneva. The discussions are therefore no longer utterly disconnected from the reality in Syria but now relate to the actual plight of the people on the ground. This was evident especially in the latest round of talks in early February. As long as civilians are being relentlessly bombed and starved, negotiations cannot take place. Only now, when fewer bombs are dropping and somewhat more humanitarian aid is reaching the hungry, can people once again turn their attention to politics.

Hopeless negotiations

The bad news is that the talks are nonetheless as good as hopeless, because sitting on one side of the table is a government that sees no reason to negotiate. One that forbids any sort of interference from the outside (even when backed by UN resolutions) and that continually invokes the "Syrian people" while simultaneously denying the will of the disagreeable rebellious faction among them, bent instead on expulsion and annihilation.

Damascus announced that it would only negotiate with loyal Syrians, with people who accept Assad's "legitimate" power (which he inherited from his father). But there's no need to travel to Geneva for this purpose, because such puppets are most likely to be found in Damascus. They are not to be confused with the domestic opposition that is tolerated by the regime, which is represented as a member of the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) in Geneva and which has just called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections scheduled for April. And not with the Syrian PKK affiliate PYD (Democratic Union Party) either, which is supposedly taking part in Geneva as the currently most powerful representative of Syrian Kurds – even against Ankara's will.

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Trezzini)
Hopeless task? "The idea of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to leave Assad out of it for the time being and first look for suitable people to lead a transitional government on both the regime and opposition sides hardly seems practicable," opines Kristin Helberg

Two irreconcilable positions are thus facing off in the discussions on a political transition in Syria. Assad is seeking a government of national unity under his leadership, in which he would integrate a few tame critics. The HNC is calling for a transitional government with full executive power and without Assad and his followers. The idea of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to leave Assad out of it for the time being and first look for suitable people to lead a transitional government on both the regime and opposition sides hardly seems practicable.

But what will happen if the talks in Geneva fail? Is the cease-fire then over? To answer this question, we first need to know why and to what extent the parties have so far upheld it. Assad is bombing less because Russia demands it. Moscow wants to show that it has influence in Damascus and is interested in a diplomatic solution.

Both are dropping only as many bombs as are "tolerable" for the international community – including on towns like Talbiseh in the province of Homs and Al Marj east of Damascus, where neither IS nor the Nusra front are active. But despite this, the rebels there are keeping amazingly quiet. Apparently, the price they would pay for retaliation – full-out missile strikes and barrel bombings – simply seems too high.

From the point of view of the people, they would then be the ones responsible for renewed mass death, which is why even the Islamists of Jaish Al Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar Al Sham (Free Men of the Levant) have thus far not let themselves be provoked by individual bombs. Russia's partial withdrawal could encourage all parties to show more restraint.

Putin′s exit strategy

Behind Putin's decision – especially at this juncture – are both an insight and an intention. The Kremlin head seems to have understood that his Syrian engagement will be too costly in the long run (according to Russian experts, 2.5 million dollars a day) and will end badly. Instead of helping Assad to achieve a military victory with the assistance of Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia militias, in order to then, as an Alawite-Shia-Christian Alliance, to bring down the wrath of the Sunni majority population and descend into a bloody war, he is putting his stock in a political solution as exit strategy.

The Russian president has tipped the scales militarily in Assad′s favour, affording the latter a stronger negotiating position, while setting himself up as a power broker – for the moment, that seems to be enough for the head of the Kremlin. Putin is now simply looking to maintain a naval base at Tartous and the military airport near Latakia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo: Reuters/A. Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin)
Putin the Kingmaker: the Russian president has tipped the scales militarily in Assad′s favour, affording the latter a stronger negotiating position, while setting himself up as a power broker – for the moment, that seems to be enough for the head of the Kremlin. Putin is now simply looking to maintain a naval base at Tartous and the military airport near Latakia

And what of his intentions? Moscow will continue to support Assad until Russian interests are also guaranteed elsewhere. Then, Putin could help the Syrian President to step down while saving face, styling himself as a peacemaker. What is perfectly clear here is that Assad's greatest strength – the support of Russia and Iran – is also his biggest weakness, because the conditions imposed by both countries are gnawing at Assad's power base.

Iran is asserting its religious, political, military and social power all over Syria and thus triggering resentment and resistance among Assad's longstanding cronies, who feel betrayed and degraded to the status of vassals. And Russia is depriving the Syrian regime of its military spearhead at the very moment when its agents want to sit down at the negotiating table with De Mistura, confident of victory.

Can the UN mediator take advantage of this propitious moment? He requires the constructive cooperation of all those involved, and the interests of the neighbouring countries must also be taken into account to a certain degree, so that they won't afterward spoil the whole deal.

But no matter what the Americans and Russians agree on – whether two, six or 18 more months of Assad – there are many Syrians who will not rest until he's gone. Against their will, no political solution will be able to pacify the country. That's why the negotiators in Geneva should turn their ears toward the chants ringing out through the land: "The revolution will continue until the regime is overthrown."

Kristin Helberg

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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