In a rare show of unity, the UN Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a political settlement and cease-fire in Syria.
While this development is important — given the deep disagreements among those who support Assad and those who oppose his regime — one cannot escape the reality that the devil is in the details. The resolution does not refer to Assad directly or indirectly. Hence, various sides to the conflict are most likely to interpret the resolution differently.
It is hard to avoid the reality that the resolution came as a result of an understanding between the United States and Russia. Over the course of the Syrian crisis, Moscow has insisted that priority should be given to defeating terrorism. Not surprisingly, President Putin deems Bashar Assad as a key ally in the war on terror. Never has Putin referred to the root causes of radicalism and the role of Assad in creating an environment conducive for terrorism in Syria. Given the American obsession with Daesh, Russia has propped up its support to Assad thus forcing the United States to accept the Russian perspectives on how to defeat Daesh and the sequence of the political process.
Not a while ago, Riyadh hosted a meeting for the Syrian opposition groups to pave the way for a transitional period in Syria. Much to the chagrin of Assad, the opposition groups put their act together and managed to come up with a united position as to how to proceed in the transitional period. This unprecedented effort made by the opposition groups has not resonated well with the United States, which has been evasive over the future of Assad. Therefore, I would not exaggerate when I say that the United States’ moves have been equivalent to a stab in the back for the opposition. Perhaps, US Secretary of State John Kerry should have said that the new united opposition group is an acceptable alternative to Assad.
Many observers blamed President Obama for inaction in Syria. His hesitancy and the awkward idea of leading from behind backfired. In an interview with Foreign Policy, former Obama’s Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that he had approved plans to attack Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles after Assad crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapon. He blames Obama for backing off. Seen in this way, had it not been Russia’s support and Obama’s inaction, Assad would not have been able to hold on for long. Therefore, much of Russia’s and Iran’s emboldened strategy in Syria has to do with the perception that Obama would do nothing.
That is being said, the UN resolution contains several points that could pave the way for a transitional period. It supports a political process that facilitates setting up inclusive and non-sectarian governance in six months. Equally important, the resolution calls on drafting a constitution and elections within 18 months. These steps can help ease the conflict. And yet, it is easier said than done. The inability to reach a final agreement on the role of Assad will most likely complicate the political process in the first place and create new problems in months to come.
It is not clear yet why Russia should act differently especially with a binding UN resolution that does not even mention Assad. This is true especially if the Russian military intervention makes a difference in the balance of forces on the ground. Seen in this way, the UN resolution is far from being comprehensive. It addresses terrorism — which is good — but it ignores the conditions that lead to radicalism.