Proxy Fighters and Religious Conflict Present Major Obstacles to Ending Syria’s Civil War

Posted March 2, 2016

MP3 Interview with Jennifer G. Loewenstein, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Penn State University, conducted by Scott Harris


A fragile ceasefire has mostly held across wartorn Syria after U.S. and Russian negotiators implemented a cessation of hostilities agreement on Feb. 27. The UN and its partners have been taking advantage of the lull in fighting by stepping up deliveries of food, water and medicine, and plan to reach more than 150,000 people while the ceasefire remains in effect. Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has claimed over 300,000 lives, forced 4 million war refugees to flee the country and internally displaced another 8 million.

While violations of the ceasefire have been reported, international observers have acknowledged that the level of violence has decreased significantly. France, however has expressed concern about reports of airstrikes by Syrian government and Russian aircraft on areas controlled by mainstream rebels. Russia denied the charge asserting that it is only targeting U.N.-designated terrorist organizations – including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front, abiding by the terms of the ceasefire.

The cessation of hostilities agreement has been seen by the United Nations as an opportunity to revive peace talks, which collapsed a month ago in Geneva. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both reiterated the urgent need to return to the negotiating table. Talks are now scheduled to restart March 9 in Geneva. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jennifer G. Loewenstein, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Penn State University, who discusses the prospects for a peaceful settlement of Syria's bloody civil war, after the implementation of the current shaky ceasefire.

JENNIFER LOEWENSTEIN:I think this is a lull that probably most of the parties to the ceasefire are very happy to have and definitely the civilian population must be unbelievably relieved where it's having its greatest effect. In other words, where international humanitarian aid can get in, where you can actually have some kind of a daily routine that's important. It's also important that there are places where the fighting has not stopped and there was some fairly deadly bombings. So I guess it depends on where you are. As I said, I'm very happy to know that there has been cessation of the intensity of the bombings. I would like to see that continue.

But I don't know how much this is really going to affect the broader situation. ISIS is certainly not going to disappear. It may lose its land, it may even lose its capital in Raqqa, (Syria) and Mosul in Iraq over the course of the next year. But it is a very strong organization with, unfortunately, many, many followers. Tens of thousands of followers. And if it is destroyed geographically – and to some extent, militarily – it will, in my opinion, go underground in the sense that it will become an ISIS-al Aqaeda. There will be cells in various parts of the Middle East and elsewhere that will act in conjunction with or in isolation of other cells. And these will continue to occur until the United States and its regional allies and Russia and its regional allies can come to some better conclusion of the hostilities. But I think, ultimately, people get war weary and my hope is that the fighters become the most war weary.

BETWEEN THE LINES:Well, Jennifer, I wanted to ask you about the potential for a wider war growing out the Syrian conflict with global and regional powers supporting their own proxy forces inside the Syrian civil war. Those predictions have been made by yourself and others. Is there any sign that this ceasefire may be a signal that this war, at least in the near term, may not spread?

JENNIFER LOEWENSTEIN:Yeah, I think that right now, the important thing that is happening is that the proxy wars that are taking place in Syria and Iraq and that were for a long time dominating the scene, Saudi Arabia fighting with Iran, with their proxy militias, Turkey having its allies, Qatar also, and you have Hezbollah and Iran and the Syrian government all together with Russia. These different parties have been dominating the Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS and have contributed very obviously to the amount of killing and bloodshed. What happened in the last couple of months, even more recently, I would say is that those proxy powers are now by default, deferring to the big superpowers, Russia and the United States. Now some people have said, well, they're working together in certain areas. And that's true. I think maybe this is cynical to say, but opportunistically, I think the Russians and the Americans have to work together up to a point. Their ultimate goals are quite different. I don't know how eager either is to compromise the most important goals. My suspicion is that they will reach some kind of temporary understanding, but that there will be a lot covert action to undermine that understanding.

So, for example, I think Russia has clearly given the Assad regime an advantage and the current civil war, it looks to me, very obvious that the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime are being pushed back because of the Russian airstrikes and to some extent also because of the American airstrikes against ISIL and the groups it supports – or that support it. This is all helping the Assad regime in a manner of speaking. But the Americans don't want to see Bashar al Assad back in power. And even if he were to become the president of Syria again on paper, Syria cannot go back to what it was. That Syria is gone. And what we have to ask ourselves is "What is going to take its place?"

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