Syria has again become the main topic of discussion on the international arena. This happened after reports of another chemical attack (this time in Douma, a suburb of Damascus) and photographs of crying children in oxygen masks were spread around the globe.
The government of the country’s sitting president Bashar Asad was blamed for the deaths of civilians, although the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has not presented its findings regarding what actually happened in Douma.
However, right now the biggest concern is caused not just by the fact of an outrageous crime against the local population, but rather by the possibility of the conflict escalating further and of the continuing misery for the people of Syria. As after a number of the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on Syria have failed, the U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened Damascus and its allies with an air strike.
Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like a joke at all – military assets are being drawn to the country’s coast, while troops on its territory are being put on full combat alert.
Experts claim that the present reaction of the United States is going to be a lot more powerful than it was last year, when in response to a chemical attack on the village of Dayr az-Zūr, the U.S. army destroyed the Ash Sha'irat airbase with “tomahawks” and is going to target military facilities in the east and the west of the country.
So why has diplomacy hit a wall on the issue of Syria?
Briefly about the history of the conflict
Prior to the fierce fighting on the Syrian territory, many locals were complaining of high unemployment, government corruption and lack of political freedom. In March 2011, teenagers inspired by “the Arab spring” in neighboring countries were arrested by state security forces for anti-government slogans. This caused mass protests across the country, which were brutally crushed by government forces including the use of guns. In the summer of that year, opposition forces took up arms as well.
By 2012, the conflict became something more than just a standoff between the government and the opposition. It became interreligious: the Sunni Muslim majority opposed the alawi minority that was in charge of the government. Other countries intervened in the conflict.
More than 400,000 people have died in the seven years of the military conflict. 5 million people became refugees, and at least 12 million (half of the country’s total population) had to flee their homes.
Who is who in the Syrian Conflict?
Syria is now the point of intersection of many groups’ and states’ interests. In fact, of so many that sometimes it is unclear who is supporting whom, who is fighting whom and why it is happening.
Parties to the conflict
The Asad regime is trying to crush opposition forces and is acting against its allies via the Syrian army. It is being supported by Russia and Iran.
“The Free Syrian Army” wants to overthrow the Asad regime. It consists of more than 60 opposition groups and is being backed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other Western states, as well as by Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies.
“Jabhat al-Nusra” is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, which opposes the Asad regime and aims to create a state based on sharia law.
Kurds are one of the most capable groups that are supported by the West. It is neutral towards Asad but intends to establish a Kurdish autonomy in Syria, Rojawa.
Key regional actors
Turkey aims to prevent the creation of a Kurdish autonomy in Syria, to install a moderate Islamic regime in Damascus and to curb the influence of Iran.
Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based militant Shia organization, whose decision to get involved in the Syrian conflict was made under the influence of Iran.
Israel is not officially involved in the Syrian war, but Tel-Aviv is concerned by the Hezbollah’s and Iran’s activity in the region.
Saudi Arabia opposes the Asad regime, considering the Syrian war as an opportunity to rebuild the architecture of the Middle East and to shift the balance of power in the region.
Qatar is interested in overthrowing the Asad regime as the latter had plans to build a gas pipeline through Syria to Europe.
The Islamic State – established on the basis of the Iraqi Al-Qaeda, intends to create a Sunni Islamic state on the territory of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine.
It is important to note that a proxy conflict between the United States and Russia has been widely discussed lately. Washington and Moscow are believed to be using Syria for settling their score with each other.
Facilitation of military action and its regulation
The military, financial and political support for the Asad regime or for the opposition from the outside directly influences the extent of the escalation in Syria. Apart from that, foreign actors are fueling and facilitating inter-religious conflicts in the region.
However, it is important to note that they are also the ones that have been regulating these conflicts for years now. For that purpose, they are not only using bilateral and trilateral agreements between nations but also discussions on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council.
For instance, on 24 February, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on a ceasefire for a period of 30 days in order for humanitarian aid to be delivered to and the wounded to be evacuated from Eastern Ghouta. The ceasefire did not concern military operations against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front.
Examples of bilateral/trilateral agreements could include the recent mutual decision by Turkey, Iran, and Russia regarding the accelerated stabilization of the Syrian situation. Many experts believe that these are the countries that are influencing the position of Bashar Asad, as their statements precede decisions of the Syrian government and are becoming prophetic.
Due to the concerning messages from Syria, another emergency session of the UN Security Council was announced. It was initiated by 9 members of the organization: the UK, the United States, France, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Ivory Coast.
The main outcome of this discussion was supposed to be a common position of the states on what had happened and an adoption of a resolution regarding the investigation of the chemical attacks in Syria. There appeared two documents of the sort – an American one and a Russian one.
The session began by a discussion of the U.S. draft resolution on a new mechanism to investigate the chemical attacks in Syria. It provided for the creation of an independent mechanism to investigate the chemical attacks in Syria, a mandatory access of humanitarian organizations and investigators to the supposed location of the chemical attack took place in Douma, while the latter were expected to conduct a full and independent investigation of what happened, to figure out if such a chemical attack indeed occurred, and, if it did, which chemicals were used, who was behind the attack and to publish the outcomes of the investigation.
The document was supported by 12 votes, while two members voted against it and one delegation abstained. However, the draft resolution was not adopted as one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Russia, opposed it.
The Russian envoy to the United Nations Vasilii Nebenzya pointed out that the U.S. offer is another step towards international confrontation, while the resolution itself means anarchy and attempted manipulation.
According to Nebenzya, Washington appointed the guilty even before the investigation and does not want to believe that there are no traces of a chemical attack (this narrative is being pushed by Syria and Russia). Its main goal is to find a justification for a military solution to the conflict.
Then, the United Nations Security Council considered Russia’s resolutions on Syria. Its first initiative provided for the establishment of a UN mechanism to investigate the chemical attacks in Syria. According to the resolution, the military actions must be suspended, investigators approved by the Russian party must be granted access to the spot, while another independent investigation mechanism must be created.
The second one was related to the deployment of a United Nations mission for the prohibition of chemical weapons to the site in Douma for investigation. The resolution contained a requirement to all parties to the conflict to grant the organization’s experts access to the site.
None of the documents proposed by Russia gained sufficient support. For example, the United Kingdom claimed that it cannot vote in favor of Russia’s draft, as it does not ensure an investigation into who was responsible for the chemical attack in Douma, whereas the United States opposed Russia’s resolution, as Moscow voiced doubts over whether the attack had indeed occurred in Douma from the very beginning.
In other words, the UN Security Council was divided into two groups – those who believe that the Douma chemical attack had taken place and seeks to take action, and those who consider it a hoax for the escalation of the conflict.
Even prior to the UN Security Council meeting, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced there would be a big price for the crimes in Syria, while at the meeting itself, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley remarked that Washington would respond to the chemical attack in the region regardless of whether or not other countries would decide to act.
Did the Douma chemical attack actually happen and who is behind it?
There appears to be no obvious answer to the question of what actually happened in the suburb of Damascus. The Organization for the Prohibition of chemical weapons informed that the special commission is gathering information from all available sources regarding the supposed chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta, but the only way to confirm this information is to conduct relevant laboratory analysis.
The Organization does not have such an opportunity, as, since the beginning of March, international humanitarian organizations cannot obtain access to Douma. This means that mutual accusations by international opponents and supporters of the Asad regime may turn out to be true, as well as fiction. Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization, some 70 people were killed in the Douma chemical attack, while another 500 were injured.