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Anna Batyuchenko

Institute of Oriental Studies

Despite the fact that Mosul has not been recaptured from the Islamic State, and the announced attack on Syria’s Raqqa has lost some momentum, there is little doubt that the fate of radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq is sealed. This makes the issue of the two countries’ postwar state structure particularly important. Who will take responsibility for the future of the two key Middle Eastern nations? How will they do so?

Despite the fact that Mosul has not been recaptured from the Islamic State, and the announced attack on Syria’s Raqqa has lost some momentum, there is little doubt that the fate of radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq is sealed. This makes the issue of the two countries’ postwar state structure particularly important. Who will take responsibility for the future of the two key Middle Eastern nations? How will they do so?

In early October 2016 Russia once again vetoed the French-drafted resolution on Syria co-sponsored by Spain calling for an end to all military flights over Aleppo. At the same time the Russian draft resolution supporting the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s plan for the withdrawal of militants from east Aleppo was voted down as well.

On October 27, 2016, the UN Security Council failed to adopt the New Zealand draft resolution, calling for the end of all fighting and the introduction of a 48-hour truce for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Aleppo. The main obstacle was the paragraph about a full ceasefire. Russia believes that the resumption of the truce is pointless unless militants change their stance.

Mother of all battles 2

That is what the militants call the battle to break the blockade of east Aleppo. It is worth recalling that in 1991 Saddam Hussein, then Iraqi President, called the conflict the “mother of all battles”, which the rest of the world knows as the Gulf War.

Notwithstanding nearly all the UN Security Council resolutions on Syria emphasizing the need for a “political transition under the guidance and with the active participation of the Syrians,” the country’s future is decided beyond its borders.

In mid-October 2016, the armed groups opposing the Syrian army not only rejected the honorable exit of fighters from Aleppo with weapons and personal safety guarantees proposed by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, but also blocked civilians from leaving east Aleppo, where about 275,000 of them reside. The rationale behind this rebels’ stance is clear enough: as long as the Syrian government forces bomb their positions in the city, where the front line is nominal, civilian casualties are inevitable. Accordingly, these losses can (and should) be converted into effective instruments for information warfare.

It is evident that the civilian population of the region (a third of them are children) is becoming not only hostages of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat an-Nusrah) and related groups, but is being used by the militants as an information human shield. Whatever happens to the civilian population in Aleppo, the blame is sure to be pinned on Russia and the Syrian authorities.

Attempts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo with the help of the United Nations have failed too. According to Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UB Special Envoy for Syria, in recent days there has not been recorded a single instance of either evacuation or humanitarian aid delivery in Syria.

Battle to recapture Mosul

In mid-October 2016, the beginning of the offensive to recapture Iraqi Mosul from the Islamic State was announced. How long this battle can last is anybody’s guess. the US government does not know, no matter how handy the capture of the capital of the self-proclaimed Caliphate might have been amidst the presidential election in the United States, given the blame pinned on the Obama administration for the flash-like capture of Mosul by IS militants in June 2014. At that time the Iraqi army, shaped according to Americans’ wishes, armed and trained by Americans, fled ignominiously, leaving their arms and ammunition.

The rapid downfall of this second largest in terms of population city of Iraq is due, among other things, to the deep distrust with which mostly Sunni locals treat the new Shiite government in the country. The official representative of the Kurdistan regional government in Russia has revealed the fact that the Islamic State still enjoys the support of many Mosul inhabitants. The IS is winning the support of the rest of the population not so much through mass public executions as through propaganda and the establishment of a tough regime that can be accused of excessive cruelty, but not of the lack of somewhat specific “justice,” as the local population perceives it.

It should be remembered that IS has replaced the thoroughly corrupt and incompetent government. At that, the militants have a short leash with the civilian population in order to achieve their goals. According to Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani, after the start of the offensive, IS militants have already forcibly resettled thousands of civilians at the sites of their strategic military facilities in Mosul.

What is next? Way to Raqqa

Although Mosul has not yet been recaptured, the US and its allies apparently consider it a matter already settled. Eventually, the downfall of the Caliphate capital (as well as of the eastern part of Aleppo) is inevitable. This begs the question about the next target. Following the liberation of Iraqi Mosul, it is planned to recapture Syria’s Raqqa – the second major stronghold of IS militants. At the same time, the Americans do not plan any involvement of either Russian or Syrian military in this operation. Naturally, the question arises of which forces will carry out a ground operation to recapture the Syrian city, which appears to be inevitable given the specific nature of the battlefield. There is little doubt that the US, France and other members of the coalition will only confine themselves to air support. Furthermore, it is not clear what will the legal basis will be for their involvement in combat operations. It is unclear to many, but not to members of the US-led coalition. The US State Department described as “insulting” the very comparison of the Russian-Syrian operation to liberate eastern Aleppo with the American operation in Mosul. In its view, the fact that Russia supports the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, while in Iraq the operation is carried out by a “coalition of 66 nations,” which enjoys “broad support and legitimacy in the international community” accounts for the fundamental difference between these two operations.

Almost all projects of Syria’s postwar state structure provide for a ban on the formation of parties on ethnic or “geographical” basis, which threatens the very existence of political parties that advocate Kurdish rights in Syria.

The Americans believe that the Kurds are the only internal Syrian force capable of launching an offensive in the region. Any coordination with the Syrian government forces is simply out of the question. At the same time, taking Raqqa through the use of Kurdish forces will automatically mean the region’s inclusion in the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria – a type of Kurdish federation within Syria, proclaimed in March 2016. However, in reality, the Kurdish troops are not as formidable as their patrons tend to believe: the Kurdish fighters are irregular, prone to guerrilla warfare, lack military discipline and are far from their homes, which dramatically demotivates them. Furthermore, it should be taken into account that the attitude of the local Arab population towards these “liberators” is very far from positive. As for other peoples of Syria, they do not welcome the arrival of the Kurds either. And expulsion seems to be the best scenario for the latter.

It should be noted that, notwithstanding nearly all the UN Security Council resolutions on Syria emphasizing the need for a “political transition under the guidance and with the active participation of the Syrians,” the country’s future is decided beyond its borders. Incidentally, none of the UN Security Council resolutions on Syria allows for any foreign interference in the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, the resolutions have repeatedly stressed the need to resolve the conflict by the Syrians themselves. The international community has been assigned the role of intermediary in the negotiations and election observer only.

Future state structure

At this juncture, both the government and almost all the forces of the political opposition favor maintaining the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. However, until now the nature of the country’s state structure has exacerbated divisions: should Syria remain a unitary state or become a federal one? Neither the Syrian government, nor the opposition forces, with the exception of the Kurds, favors the idea of federalization.

Meanwhile, the country has been actually split for several years, and the prospects for Syria’s revival within the confines of 2011 without resolving the Kurdish problem are quite dubious. Although the issue of Kurdish autonomy can now be regarded as a fait accompli, its legal framework has yet to be determined. The Kurds in Syria occupy the northeastern part of the Al-Hasakah Governorate and a number of areas in the country’s Aleppo province. In fact, the so-called Syrian Kurdistan (or Western Kurdistan, or Rojava as the Kurds prefer to call it) occupies the entire north of Syria. The Kurdish leaders have already announced plans to incorporate Raqqa (after its recapture, of course) in the Kurdish autonomous region. Almost all projects of Syria’s postwar state structure provide for a ban on the formation of parties on ethnic or “geographical” basis, which threatens the very existence of political parties that advocate Kurdish rights in Syria.

The current Constitution of Syria adopted in 2012 also prohibits the establishment of parties on a tribal or regional basis (Art. 8). Thus, neither the government forces, nor the opposition plan to let the Kurdish parties take part in the legal political struggle. The fate of the Syrian Kurds and the future state structure of Syria remain vague from a legal perspective.

If the UN Security Council fails to come to an agreed position on the end of hostilities, and the issues of post-conflict settlement are not resolved, the war in Syria is bound to continue for a long time, if not forever.

Transitional government body

Geneva Communiqué of June 30 2012 and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) remain the main UN Security Council documents on the issue of peace in Syria. Resolution 2254 (2015), adopted on December 18, 2015, emphasized the need for a transitional governing body, drafting a new Syrian constitution and holding free and fair elections within 18 months. Although the designated period has yet to expire, there have been no real steps to create a transitional governing body. In 2016, the scheduled elections to the People’s Council of Syria did take place, but for various reasons, the West did not recognize their results.

In any case, an attempt to create a transitional governing body (TGB) is sure to face a number of unresolvable for the time being questions. According to Resolution 2254, the transitional governing body should 1) have “full executive powers”; 2) “be formed on the basis of mutual consent”; and 3) “ensure the continuity of governing institutions.”

Each of these provisions raises a number of both legal and purely practical questions. Firstly, if the TGB enjoys full executive powers, does it fully perform the functions assigned to both the government and the president, or do the president (current?) and the TGB co-exist during this transitional period?

Apparently, there are three possible options, as regards to the scope of power that may be assigned to the TGB:

  • The TGB performs the functions assigned by the Syrian Constitution to the Council of Ministers;
  • The transitional governing body combines the functions of the President and of the Council of Ministers assigned to them by the Constitution of Syria;
  • The TGB carries out functions in accordance with the powers stipulated for it in a separate document.

Clearly, the third option requires adopting a certain supraconstitutional document, stipulating the basic principles of TGB functioning and its powers. Again, who will be vested with power to develop this document and under what conditions?

There is a fourth option, which is not pursuant to Resolution 2254 (2015) of the UN Security Council, but proposed by the Syrian opposition, which argues that the Syrian Parliament as it is today cannot be trusted due to the system of its formation. Accordingly, the opposition wants the transitional governing body to enjoy not only executive powers, but legislative ones as well.

The election of the TGB members is the second controversial issue that requires addressing. Who will initiate these elections, and on what conditions will they be held? At present, for example, the internal Syrian opposition proposes forming a collegial body of the 30 people as follows: a third is appointed (elected?) by the current government; a third represents the opposition forces; and the rest are independent individuals offered by the UN Security Council. However, it is doubtful that the opposition forces (their list has not been yet compiled) will be able to choose 10 people out of their ranks representing their interests and at the same time willing to work with the government.

In the absence of consensus

If the UN Security Council fails to come to an agreed position on the end of hostilities, and the issues of post-conflict settlement are not resolved, the war in Syria is bound to continue for a long time, if not forever. In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon again offered to transfer “the Syrian dossier” to the International Criminal Court. This, of course, can contribute to punishing guilty persons (although civil wars leave anyone little room for staying genuinely innocent of any wrongdoing), but is unlikely to result in a peaceful settlement.

It is also reported that António Guterres, the Secretary-General-designate of the United Nations, plans to create a special body within the United Nations framework to resolve the Syrian conflict on the model of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). His attention primarily to the refugee issue is understandable, since he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015.

Getting the mandate for these activities requires enlisting the support of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as the latter appears to be the only body empowered to take measures to restore international peace and security. From the perspective of international law, any action taken in circumvention of the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations will be considered as not only a violation of the sovereignty of Syria, but also an act of aggression.

The actual inaction of the international community and independent uncoordinated actions of various countries, carried out outside the framework of international law, do not promote peace building in the region and dramatically aggravate the humanitarian situation in Syria. Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, its importance notwithstanding, has its limits, and the Syrian authorities’ resources for a ground operation are shrinking. At that, the recapture of Mosul may bring about another round of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation and new antagonisms among the major regional players, which is precisely the opposite of the declared goals.

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