The Astana Conference – a step on the road to peace or another turn of the carousel?

In my last post I suggested that Russia was almost certainly looking for an exit strategy from the Syrian conflict, and that we might see moves in that direction once the situation in Aleppo had been resolved. This has been an element in Russia’s thinking for some time, but two recent events will have reinforced their sense of urgency in this respect.

Chaos in East Aleppo

The first was the embarrassing shambles that overtook Russia’s efforts to project a statesman-like management of the final surrender of East Aleppo. Russia took charge of this process through its Ministry of Defence’s Centre for Reconciliation and reached an agreement with the remaining armed opposition groups in East Aleppo that should have allowed an evacuation of both civilians and fighters to start on 14 December. However that agreement was disrupted when forces associated the Iranians suddenly imposed new conditions before they would allow the evacuation to begin. That resulted in Russia’s orderly conclusion becoming a chaotic and agonising waiting game, with sick and injured East Aleppo residents who had packed their belongings and left their homes, forced to sleep in the streets for days while this dispute being resolved.

Collapse in Palmyra

Concurrently with this embarrassing event came an even more traumatic one. While Russia and the regime’s attention was focused on Aleppo, ISIS mounted a major assault on the city of Palmyra, which Russia had liberated from ISIS control to great fanfare the previous year, and succeeded in capturing both the city and the adjoining airport in just 3 days.

Regime publicists tried to put a brave face on this defeat by claiming that the city had only a modest garrison of 1000 Syrian soldiers to defend it, and heavily outnumbered they had been forced to make tactical withdrawal. However it seems that the real story of Palmyra is rather different.

A Syrian army soldier serving with the Tiger Forces in Palmyra has provided a lengthy account of the battle, which in turn was picked up by French journalist, Stéphane Mantoux. According to this account the Syrian regime actually had a force of over 3000 stationed at Palmyra, which, Mantoux concludes, means that the defenders almost certainly outnumbered the attacking force.

The weakness of the regime garrison lay not in its numbers but in its fragmentation and low morale. It was composed of two regular army units (including one from the elite 11th Division), five separate militia groups (two attached to different regime intelligence services, including the famed “Tiger force” linked to Airforce Security), a contingent of Afghan Shia militia, and a substantial Russian ground force. At crucial points in the battle this unstable combination seems to have come apart: After ISIS exploded a large vehicle bomb the Afghans fled in disarray; then half the main Tiger Force group abandoned their position, complaining that they had not been paid for the five weeks.; and then the Russians decided to withdraw, blowing up the main ammunition dump before they left.

This messy debacle provided Russia with a clear object lesson in the vulnerability of the Syrian military, compounded by the involvement of their own troops.

c2qyrjtxcaabj8c-jpg-largeAn insiders view of the Palmyra debacle on Twitter

The Astana initiative

On 16 December Russia launched a new initiative in partnership with Turkey, which involved a ceasefire to begin on 30 December and a call to the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups to participate in a conference in the Kazakh capital, Astana. This initiative was communicated to the United Nations and endorsed in Security Council resolution 2336 on 31 December, and seven “moderate opposition” groups (the term used by the Russian Ministry of Defence) signed up to the ceasefire, which laid down the following obligations for both sides:

To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles, and to cease using combat air forces;

To refrain from seizing or seeking to seize territory occupied by other parties to the ceasefire; To use proportionate retaliatory force (only to the extent necessary for protection against an immediate threat) for self-defence purposes

Excluded from the ceasefire are ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) – the latter providing a loophole which the regime would exploit to circumvent the agreement.

Significantly, for the first time in any Russian move relating to Syria, the ceasefire regime actually contained an enforcement mechanism: Russia and Turkey were to act as “joint guarantors” of the ceasefire and a Commission established to oversee its implementation, including on the ground monitoring with “sanctions” in the event of violations.

On this basis, the Assad regime and 13 armed groups agreed to attend the Astana Conference, which took place on 23-24 January. (Ahrar al-Sham, the largest of the armed opposition groups, declined to participate, but indicated that it would consider anything agreed at Astana.).

fsa-at-astanaArmed opposition groups participating in the Astana Conference

Astana’s results

Despite inflated claims from Russia, it was never likely that anything of significance could be achieved over two days. Indeed, as Astana unfolded, its scope seemed to shrink: in the initial statements the conference was described as “negotiations on a political settlement, aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means”; but by the time the meeting took place on 23 January everyone was insisting that it had the more limited objective of “consolidating the ceasefire, a formula that was mutually convenient for both the regime and the opposition – for the regime because it has no interest in finding a “political solution”; for the opposition because, as a delegation of armed groups, they insisted that wider political matters were the concern of the High Negotiations committee established for the Geneva process. (Blocking the rather transparent Russian attempt to drive a wedge between the military and political wings of the Syrian opposition.)

As the talks began, it was announced that Iran would also take part in the policing of the ceasefire as part of a “trilateral mechanism”, although the document submitted to the UN which provided the basis the Conference had listed only Russia and Turkey in this role. The opposition delegation objected to this on the grounds that Iran was one of the principle combatants, but to no effect.

So what did Astana actually accomplish? The sponsors hailed it as a great success, with the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also enthusiastic at the outcome. But its only tangible product was a declaration issued by the three sponsors which reconfirmed what had already been agreed at the start, but with the addition of Iran to create a “tripartite” enforcement mechanism. There was nothing agreed to by either of the Syrian parties.

Astana in practice – breaches in Wadi Barada

The Astana ceasefire was actually being breached while it was  it was being declared. The regime had launched an offensive against the villages of the Wadi Barrada, which included the Ain al-Fijah spring that supplies water to several nearby towns and to Damascus city. Bashar al-Jaafari was questioned about this at his press conference in Astana and he made it clear that the regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire in this area, justifying it in terms of the strategic importance of the spring and the false allegation that Jabhat al-Nusra was present in the area. In the event the regime completed its military operation in Wadi Barada, capturing Ain al-Fijah and displacing 2000 local residents, all in clear violation of the conditions of the ceasefire. (Russia appears to have tried to mediate in this situation, but to no avail.)

However, the ceasefire seems to have been better observed elsewhere in the country. According to the Violations Documentation Center, in the five weeks since the commencement of the ceasefire 501 civilians were killed across Syria. by regime forces. That figure shows that the ceasefire was being seriously violated – but it is less than half the number of deaths in the equivalent period last year. Much of this was due to the fact that Russian bombing seems to have ceased over most of the county.

The Road ahead: The Ceasefire

So where does the ceasefire go from here? The monitoring regime has thus far been handled by Russia and Turkey, with Turkey reporting dozens of ceasefire violations, but no sign that anything has been done to redress them. The three sponsors of the ceasefire met again in Astana on 6 February to set up more formal mechanisms for its enforcement, but while de Mistura was invited to provide “advice” based on UN experience, they showed no sign of being prepared to accept UN monitoring.

The Road ahead: Political talks

The Syrian negotiations ball now moves back into the Geneva court. Talks were due to resume there on 8 February, but have been postponed until the 20th. Strangely the postponement was first announced by Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov and only later confirmed by de Mistura.

Russia has long sought to divide the Syrian political opposition and create an “opposition” that would follow its lead. As a result it now finds itself in a tangled situation in which it faces no fewer than six different “opposition” groupings  vying for a place at the Geneva table: three of these are its own creations ­ the “Astana opposition” (linked to Donald Trump’s son), the “Moscow opposition”, and the “Hmeimin opposition” (formed at a Russian airbase); two are groups it has flirted with at one time or another – the Cairo opposition and the Kurdish PYD; and, finally, there is the  High Negotiations Committee which Russia still wants  to undermine but which provided the key advisors to the armed opposition’s delegation at Astana.

Unable to sort all this out, the Russians have kicked it over to de Mistura, who in turn has passed it to the Syrians, with the threat that he will choose the opposition delegation for Geneva himself if they don’t sort it out by 8 February.

This does not bode well for Geneva III. But far more serious is the fact that there has been absolutely no movement towards the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Syria freely nor on the issue of the release of the tens of thousands of detainees held in Assad’s prisons

The Syrian opposition raised these issues at the Geneva II conference in 2014 and met a stone wall. It raised them again at Astana – providing a list of 30, 000 women and children held in regime prisons, with no result (although humanitarian aid is reported to be on the agenda of Astana II this week).These are the most elementary of “confidence building measures” without which no serious negotiations on peace in Syria can begin (they were  actually incorporated into UN Security Council Resolution 2254 over a year ago) ; yet no one – not the UN and de Mistura; not John Kerry back in the day; and not Russia now has been prepared to press the regime to move on these issues.

Russia’s plan for Syria

Russia’s core political strategy for Syria has been clear for some time – it wants to engineer a “national unity” government in which the opposition (or at least some opposition) will join the current government with Assad as President. For a long time it has sought to do this by using the stick of a military onslaught on opposition areas; it is now moving to dangle a carrot in front of the opposition. At Astana it unveiled a long-rumoured project- a Constitution that it has drafted as the basis for a settlement in Syria. The full text of this has not been published (and civil opposition groups have rightly rejected the idea of a Constitution orchestrated by an external power) but there have been some leaks of its content. What Russia seems to be proposing is a one-term limit for the President (which would allow Assad to remain in office until at least 2021), scaling down of some Presidential powers in favour of a new, bi-cameral legislature, some degree of decentralisation, and recognition of the cultural rights of the Kurds (but falling well short of the federalism sought by the PYD.)

These reforms seem little more than cosmetic. In Syria power isn’t rooted in institutional forms and doesn’t flow through constitutional channels, it is based on clan, clique and patronage networks built around the person of a President with dynastic legitimacy. Tinkering with constitutional forms does not change the structure of power in a “Mukhabarat state“in which the dominant political apparatus is the all-pervasive security services, unconstrained by democratic political structures or the “rule of law”.

But the immediate acid test here is the twin questions of ending the sieges and freeing the detainees. If Russia’s “tripartite” alliance (quadripartite if you include the UN) can’t deliver on those issues then it can’t deliver anything, and the whole Astana-Geneva process will turn out to be yet another turn of the carousel that has been spinning for the last five years at the expense of the people of Syria.

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The Fall of East Aleppo: Strategic Gain or Pyrrhic Victory for Assad?

Over recent weeks we have seen a major advance by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies into opposition East Aleppo, in the wake of a protracted and devastating bombardment of the city. The situation that has resulted from these moves and their longer-term implications remain unclear – partly because of the inevitable “fog war” but also because of the deluge of disinformation being disseminated by the Russian military and regime supporters, both East and West. Let’s start with the question of numbers.

How many people are there in East Aleppo?

Official figures provided both by the United Nations and the East Aleppo authorities (Civil Defence and Aleppo Council) placed the population of East Aleppo at 250 -275,000 . The UN persisted with this figure until recently, but is now suggesting that there are “up to 100,000” civilians remaining in opposition areas of the old city and just over 30,000 who have left. The leader of the opposition council in Aleppo, Brita Hagi Hasan, in a recent interview with a French newspaper, gave a figure of 150,000. The discrepancy between these current figures and the previous ones can probably be explained by the large flight of people from the bombing of the city earlier this year, which the UN  may have seriously underestimated.

How many people are leaving East Aleppo and where are they going?

Again, there are a lot of figures flying around – the highest one being 50,000, which seems to have originated with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and was picked up by many media sources. But the SOHR has put out conflicting numbers at various points in time. A more reliable statistic comes from the UN agencies, who agreed on a figure of 31, 500 a week ago. Of these 18, 000 had gone to regime controlled West Aleppo, 8500 to the YPG controlled area of Sheikh Maqsoud, and 5000 had moved to other areas within East Aleppo. The Russians are claiming that a further 50,000 have fled in the past week; there is certainly some further movement of people, but the reports on the ground do not suggest anything like this number – they show various groups of at most a few hundred people on the move – indeed, this is exactly what Russian monitoring cameras have captured.

What influences people’s decision on whether and where to go?

Again, a difficult question. For most it will be a matter of pragmatism: where are the nearest safe (or safer) areas? where do they have family connections?. The significant movement into the YPG’s Sheikh Maqsoud district seems to have been from adjacent areas, and most of these people have now returned to their homes as these areas have come under YPG control. For some it may be political – interviews have shown that there are pro-regime families who found themselves stranded in opposition areas and are happy to move into regime-controlled territory (these are the cases highlighted by the regime media); and probably most of those who have chosen to move into other opposition areas, have done so for political reasons. Those living in areas captured militarily by the regime have had no choice – they have been transported to regime holding areas, where men of military age have been detained for interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in some areas armed groups have killed people who have protested against their continuing presence, naming two groups guilty of this – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and the Abu Amara battalion (associated with Ahrar al-Sham). Aleppo council leader Brita Hagi Hasan, in an interview with a French newspaper rather side-stepped a question about this, saying only that “we have no problem with the Free Syrian Army”.

The regime’s gains

There is no doubt that the regime and its allies have gained the upper hand in military terms. Several commentators early on in the offensive talked about it “splitting” the opposition held districts of the city – but if you look at the maps of the conflict it looks to be more of a progressive peeling away of opposition held territory like an onion, starting at the outer layer and working inwards.

This is one of the reasons that the initial advance of regime forces was so rapid – they began at the outer edge of rebel territory – which were areas like Hanano that had suffered the most destruction from bombing, were most depopulated, and therefore provided relatively open terrain for the deployment of the better equipped, Iranian-led forces.

The problem with this “onion” is that the going gets tougher for the attackers as they move further towards the centre, where defending forces are more concentrated and better prepared. While there are a lot of sweeping claims being made by Russia and the regime, the fact is that the regime ground offensive has come to a halt with opposition forces still hanging on in a compact area in the south of the city – and there may be as many as 100,000 civilians with them. Reports coming out from these districts indicate that they are under continual, intense bombardment, and recently have been subjected to attacks with chlorine gas and phosphorous.

The position of the remaining armed groups, however, is untenable as they are surrounded and their supply routes cut off. Their only hope is that they will be able to trade the regime’s desire for a quick, symbolic victory against the rebel’s capacity for messy resistance on their home ground. The Russians are likely to recognise this and we may well see some sort of evacuation deal being struck quite soon (there is a report of such a deal being negotiated just coming in).

The outcome of such a settlement will be that the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift to Idlib and parts of North Aleppo, where there are large opposition communities   already under heavy bombardment by the Russians and the regime.

aleppo-map
Shrinking opposition territory in East Aleppo 1-8 December

A Pyrrhic Victory?

From the point of view of the Assad regime this may well prove to be a rather hollow “victory”. They will emerge from it with an enhanced security position and a stronger claim to be in command of the whole country than they have had for several years, but these gains have been bought at the cost of becoming an increasingly marginal player in determining the future of Syria.

On the military front the Aleppo operation has been led by Iranian-commanded foreign militia. On the political front Russia seems to have taken over the management of the conflict and its social effects  – it is the Russian Ministry of Defence’s “Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic” that oversees local surrenders and evacuations; it is Russia which carries out de-mining of occupied areas; and it is Russia that is very demonstrably providing food and medical aid to the internally displaced (Russia seem to be playing a double game here, attacking the UN and western governments for failing to provide aid while blocking the admission of much aid so that it can conduct its own “hearts and minds” programme ­ – but also accepting UN assistance when it suits them: for example, the city’s water pumping station has only been able to resume operations with fuel provided by UNICEF.)

While the regime may take control of former opposition districts, the YPG has taken the opportunity to extend their control from Sheikh Maqsoud to more than three other districts, complicating the ability of the regime to impose its full control over the city.

To top it off, there is a severe social crisis brewing in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has inherited a city half of which has been absolutely shattered; they have over 30,000 dispossessed people to support, most of whom have been moved to two derelict industrial sites in Jibreen on the outskirts of the city. These centres are completely overloaded, and conditions are so bad there that some families have been moved to Hanano , despite the widespread destruction of that area. The regime has described this as “returning the people of Hanano to their homes” but according to the UN:

people currently sheltering in Hanano cannot collectively be counted as returnees as … only 20 per cent of them are originally from the area, while 80 per cent are currently squatting in abandoned houses. Despite the recent influx, Hanano is not deemed a safe area for shelter due to unexploded remnants of war in the area, and many buildings being at risk of collapse due to infrastructural damage.

All of this is in addition to a large population of displaced persons already present in West Aleppo, which the UN suggests may number as many as 400, 000, 77,000 of whom are living in “unfinished buildings or collective shelters.”

If we add to this the fact that a study of Aleppo in 2013/14 found a significant level of hostility to the regime in West Aleppo (in many districts 20 to 40% of the residents believed that “the Assad regime is the greatest threat to Syria ”) then it seems likely that the “order” imposed on Aleppo will be a highly repressive one in both parts of the city (five restless Western districts have been under the direct governance of the notorious Air Force Security since 2012.)

One of the centres for displaced people in Aleppo

Russia’s strategy and future prospects

I have argued in the past that Russia had little real leverage over the Assad regime (they could not afford to abandon Assad even if he refused to go along with their plans). But Aleppo may have altered that significantly: the regime is now dependent on Russia to a greater degree and in more ways than ever before. Russia will not want to get bogged down in a conflict for which there is no apparent end point, and may now start to craft its own exit strategy and press the regime to fall in line. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView has suggested that the Russians may try to impose  a de facto partition of Syria that would leave the opposition in control of Idlib and Assad in power in the rest of the country (and Russia’s naval and airforce bases intact). There is, however, an alternative possibility, hinted at by the pro-Russian site South Front: Russia could use Idlib as a bargaining counter with both the regime and the opposition in order to produce its preferred solution to the conflict – a “national unity” government presided over by Assad but with some form of opposition participation. In this scenario the Syrian opposition would be told that unless it agrees, the military onslaught on Idlib will be stepped up; and the regime will be told that if it doesn’t acquiesce Russia will pull back and leave it to deal with a huge reconstruction bill and a rebellious province on its own.

I don’t claim any official standing for South Front, which is a blatant propaganda operation, but it does have clear Russian patronage and may have some connections to Russian policy networks. Whatever the case, such a strategy makes sense from the Russian point of view and would seem to be the only way they can move towards an outcome that would meet their longstanding objective.

Max Blumenthal and the Rhizomes

In the course of the last two weeks, since the end of the so called “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, over 250,000 people living in East Aleppo have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of bombing, targeting hospitals, schools, and even the underground shelters they have built to protect themselves from previous assaults.

These events have received widespread attention from the world’s media, which heretofore had been obsessed mostly with ISIS, and one factor contributing to that has been the attention attracted by the civil defence force that operates within opposition areas, known as the “White Helmets. These heroic individuals were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a powerful documentary broadcast to wide acclaim on Netflix.

This has generated fury in the pro-Assad camp because the focus on the White Helmets also means a focus on the desperate situation of the inhabitants of opposition communities in Syria and the criminal efforts of the regime and its allies to crush their spirit. For the past 18 months the pro-regime camp has sought to denigrate the White helmets and anyone who tries to promote public awareness of what is happening Syria.

Recently, they have been joined by someone called Max Blumenthal. I have never heard of Blumenthal but I understand that he is regarded as someone of significance in the US left, and since he has a lot to say about the movement that I am involved in, I feel the need to respond to what he has had to say.

The first thing to note about Blumenthal is his pervasive paternalism. His paternalism towards Syrians has been dealt with very effectively by Marcel Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, who is well placed to express the views of both the victims of the Syrian regime’s oppression and the popular, democratic resistance to it.

Blumenthal extends his paternalism to the international movement of solidarity with Assad’s victims – and that means he is treading on my toes, so I feel entitled to voice a protest which I believe would be shared by the many thousands who have taken to the streets around the world to support Aleppo and the other centres of resistance to Assad and his allies.

Blumenthal says the following about the demonstrations that took place in September-October of this year to protest against the onslaught on Aleppo.

On September 30, demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protest … Few participants likely knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the Syria Campaign …  The group is able to operate within the halls of power in Washington and has the power to mobilise thousands of demonstrators into the streets. (my emphasis)

This seems to imply that we were all naïve dupes being led by the nose by some “shadowy” force – I haven’t heard charges like that since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, when right wing commentators portrayed us as all as tools of a “shadowy” Communist Party. And they are as nonsensical now as they were then.

Blumenthal professes a fondness for facts, so let me provide a little factual  history .The international Syria solidarity movement emerged initially in  a series of spontaneous actions (mostly flash mobs) that took place  across the world in town centres, high schools and universities in the course of 2011-12. You Tube has a good record of these (its counter says 100, 000 but the real number is probably fewer than that) Most- but not all – were organised by young members of the Syrian diaspora. I think the kudos for being the first organised solidarity group goes to the Toronto-based Like for Syria which was established in January 2011, and has done amazing awareness raising work in the streets of Toronto. This was followed closely by Leeds Friends of Syria, established in the UK later that year.

As the situation in Syria unfolded, it had an impact in the international left and solidarity mileux which began to differentiate between those for whom “anti-imperialism” was a mechanical mantra that would lead them to embrace brutal dictatorships on geopolitical grounds (much like western “realist” policy makers), and those whose anti-imperialism rested on a bedrock of internationalism and support for the oppressed and their struggles.

Argentina : "We support those in struggle across the world" the anti-imperiaism of internationalists The anti-imperialism of internationalists (Argentina)
“We  support those who are in struggle across the world”

 

The first round of global demonstrations for Syria took place in June 2011 and March 2012 (this seemed to worry  the Syrian regime so much that they sponsored  their own “Global March for Syria in 2012) and regular international solidarity events followed. The movement was greatly strengthened by the Declaration of Solidarity issued by the World Social Forum in 2013.That May groups like the Brazilian metalworkers union came on board, and by May 2014, solidarity demonstrations were taking place in 28 cities worldwide, including 3 in Palestine, several across Latin America, in Bucharest, and in Mauritius.

Palestinian Demonstrators at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem 2013Palestinian demonstrators at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  May 2014

 

In my own home ground, Britain, members of the Syrian community took part in the first Global campaign in 2012. A broader coalescing of activists emerged in late 2013 in response to a decision by an alleged anti-war movement to host a notorious regime apologist. At the same time numerous individuals were using their moral compasses to chart clear positions of support for the Syrian struggle. Personal contacts developed into Facebook networking, which led to a conference in early 2014 (inspired by a similar conference in in the US) by which point we were ready to “send our love to Syria”.

As our movement consolidated itself we extended our contacts with groups and individuals in Europe and North America and encouraged the formation of similar networks. When the Syria Campaign emerged in the summer of 2014 we were very pleased to see them: they brought to the work on which we were already embarked additional resources and useful media skills (Although we had some significant achievements of our own in that respect). We have worked very positively with the Syria campaign for the past two years in our common cause of enhancing public awareness and promoting support for the besieged people of Syria. We value their contribution immensely – but the grass roots work of building an international network for Syrian solidarity is first and foremost our achievement- and Blumenthal’s attempt to take that away from us in order to construct his petty, distorted narrative is offensive.

The 2016 demonstrations that Blumenthal cites were the latest in this long series of solidarity initiatives. You can track their rich diversity in 41 cities across the world  through this page Once more the work of the Syria Campaign, was helpful, but I doubt that their writ carried much weight in Reykjavik, or with Valencian anarchists.

Max Blumenthal’s problem is that he is stuck in the sand of the last century – in the 21st century social movements do not develop  hierarchically under tree-like “auspices” (despite Blumenthal’s co-thinkers in pro regime circles, who regard George Soros as the Elder behind them all including Occupy Wall Street.). They flourish as largely flat networks – more expressively they are rhizomatic (this reference to the rhizome will be understood by social theorists and gardeners alike, but for those who are neither, a rhizome has been described as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Yes – that’s just the right metaphor to capture our essential properties (indeed, the Jasmine flower – the symbol of Syria’s Dignity Revolution – is the outgrowth of a rhizome).

dignity-symbolOur first rhizome: the Dignity Revolution

 

Let me offer just one small example of rhizomatic flourishing. Blumenthal, in his tirade against the Syria campaign, links to a Facebook page for a demonstration in Amsterdam, which is being called under the handle #AleppoHolocaust. The earliest manifestation of this handle and its associated logo seems to be a twitter campaign conducted on 30 September. The work of a “shadowy” Syria Campaign? Nope: just another rhizome bursting into the light – a group of Iranians – Iran Arab Spring – opposed to Iran’s intervention in Syria (They also carry posts in Catalan.)

Max Blumenthal presents himself as an intrepid investigative reporter bringing dark deeds to light. Yet he has totally missed the real lifeworld of global Syrian solidarity: just compare his arid, conspiratorial account of our movement with the vibrant reality I have portrayed above.

The reason is not hard to find ­­- Blumenthal is hunting for us in trees, while we are busy cultivating rhizomes.

Syria: From bombardment to ceasefire and back

Personal circumstances have kept me away from this blog for almost two months and a lot has gone on while I’ve been away.

First, we saw a dramatic acceleration of Russian military activity in Syria, followed by a significant deceleration as a “cessation of hostilities” was proclaimed, starting on 27 February. To top it off we saw Putin announce the (partial) withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on 14 March.

Let’s examine each of these event in turn.

Russian intervention

The month between my previous post on 25 January and the “cessation of hostilities” saw almost 1000 civilian deaths (all figures here taken from the Violations Documentation Centre database). If we look at the Russian intervention overall (30 September 2015 to the start of the ceasefire) then what we see is a period of intense bombardment of civilian population centres (well documented in reports of attacks on hospitals and schools) accompanied by more effective targeting of opposition military forces. So the rate of killing of civilians edged up only slightly in the period, but the killing of armed opponents of the regime almost doubled. The role of air power in attacking civilian communities also grew sharply:(in the period prior to Russian intervention bombs accounted for 48% of civilian deaths, once the Russians arrived the figure rose to 65%; with Russian operations accounting for 60% of all bombing.)

The Ceasefire

Most commentaries on the ceasefire from the United Nations, western governments, and the western media, have hailed it as a major success. While it has resulted in a major reduction in the number of civilian casualties, and allowed civil groups in a whole series of towns and villages to return to the streets to call for the downfall of the regime, an inspection of the statistics tell a less uniformly optimistic picture. While civilian deaths have fallen by 60% since the ceasefire began (and deaths as a result of bombing have declined even more sharply) there are still are still running at almost 100 civilian deaths each week. Details of continuing regime attacks can be found here.

Russian Withdrawal

The announcement by Putin on 14 March that Russia was to begin a major withdrawal of its forces took the rest of the world by surprise.

While Putin accompanied the announcement with “mission accomplished” fanfare, few independent commentators took this seriously. As was widely pointed out, the Russians had managed to shore up Asad for the immediate future and strengthen his hand for the Geneva negotiations, but Russia’s prime objective for its intervention – the elimination of ISIS ­was still far from complete. Of course, in typical Putin fashion, after the announcement had been allowed to resound, the qualifications began – Russia was maintaining its airbase and core personnel in Latakia, and could resume operations on short notice; the Russian air defence system would remain in place; and Russian air support for Syrian operations against ISIS would-continue.

The question remains – why did Russia pull out so demonstratively? Was it some sort of a warning shot to the regime that if they did not fall in line with Russia’s diplomatic line, Russia could be less supportive? Perhaps, but if so it was a hollow gesture – Assad knows perfectly well that his allies cannot afford to have the regime fall militarily to anyone. Indeed, recent news has suggested that Russia may be increasing its flow of material support to the regime.

Russia’s Diplomacy

Something that has not been widely noted by Syria-watchers is the fact that Russia has been badly wrong-footed on the diplomatic front at almost every turn. As I’ve suggested previously, what Russia would like to see is a resolution (or at least winding down) of the Syrian conflict with the minimum of political change at the centre. Their strategic objective is the creation of a power-sharing government that would continue to be headed by Asad, but which would include some opposition representatives. This would have to receive some concessions to make it credible, but it would leave the basic structure of power intact. The current ceasefire is a “demonstration project” for this plan – designed to show opposition communities what life could be like if they dropped demands for Asad’s departure and went along with this sort of compromise. It seems that John Kerry, despite occasional bursts of anti-Asad rhetoric, has signed up to this approach as well.

But to implement this scheme Russia needs two things – an opposition that would be prepared to respond to these limited incentives, and a regime that would prepared to make some cosmetic (and perhaps a bit more than cosmetic) changes. Russia has failed to achieve either.

On the opposition issue, Russia had hoped to split the anti-Asad political opposition and assemble a pliable, credible opposition current that would sign up to their package. In fact, their manoeuvres had the opposite effect producing an unprecedented unification of the Syrian opposition – with the High Negotiating Committee including both the Syrian National Coalition and the bulk of the National Coordinating Committee (plus, for the first time, sections of the armed opposition). Russia has had to make do with a rump of fringe opposition groups headed by their glove puppet Qadri Jamil.

Similarly, their attempt to widen the list of “terrorist” organisations beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has drawn a blank (although that hasn’t prevented the regime form making up its own list.)

As far as the regime is concerned, they have refused to play ball, maintaining an intransigent position that is beginning to frustrate even Stefan de Mistura. In effect what we are seeing is a replay of the Geneva II negotiations – exactly what Russia and the US wanted to avoid.

The Negotiations thus far

These have been pretty much Geneva II déjà vu – the opposition puts forward wide- ranging and detailed plans; the regime simply offers a statement of abstract principles and ignores the opposition’s proposals. In an attempt to move beyond this deadlock de Mistura has published a list of what he diplomatically describes as “commonalities” – but beyond a couple of abstract points – they are nothing of the sort: they are basically opposition positions that he hopes he can get the regime to at least respond to. But I really can’t see the regime buying into this, for example:

  1. Syrians are committed to rebuilding a strong and unified national army, also through the disarmament and integration of members of armed groups supporting the transition and the new constitution. That professional army shall protect the borders and population of the State from external threats in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war. There shall be no intervention by foreign fighters on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile the regime continues to drag its feet over the “confidence building” measures that are meant to accompany the ceasefire. It has allowed limited relief supplies into many of the besieged areas (although it continues to refuse surgical materials to enter) – but denies the UN access to Douma and Darayya –two towns in the strongly oppositional belt close to Damascus that it is intent on crushing, ceasefire or no. And repeated demands for release of detainees – which the opposition has backed up by providing detailed lists, and which de Mistura has endorsed – have been met with a stony silence.

Russia’s consolation prize

Russia has however come away from the political and diplomatic process with one consolation prize – the PYD/YPG who exercise effective control over the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG has shifted its de facto alliance from the United States to Russia, coordinating its operations with the Russian air force to seize territory, in some cases from FSA forces. (For a good account of this see Michael Karadjis’s blog post– which I agree with in the essentials (but see my comment on the post at his site). The PYD has now established a Moscow office.

As a quid pro quo for this Russia made a few positive noises using the Syrian “F” word – Federalism, although these were promptly withdrawn once the PYD started to act on these assurances. I’m inclined to speculate that Russia is here using the PYD as a stick to wave at a recalcitrant Asad – while it can’t seriously threaten to withdraw support from the regime, it can suggest that if Asad is not more cooperative, Russia would consider backing a PYD-linked “federalism” for the north of the country. However, for the time being Russia’s Syrian protégés have adopted a position indistinguishable from that of the Syrian opposition.

The Geneva process is due to resume on 11 April – but the hopes for it are no brighter than when it opened. The best that we can expect is that the ceasefire can be spun out for as long as possible to give the Syrian people some respite from the terror that they have been subjected to by the regime and that when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the Russians may not be quite as enthusiastic in their military operations as previously.

Russia’s Double Game in Syria

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At the Conference Table: Russia’s Double Game

During the last two months we have witnessed two apparently contradictory sets of events – on the one hand the conclusion of the preparatory rounds of the Vienna peace process with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 on 18 December, incorporating what had been agreed in Vienna, and subsequent moves by the UN to implement it. On the other hand we have seen an accelerating series of Russian airstrikes against civilian populations in opposition controlled areas: in the period since the adoption of the UN resolution Russian bombs have killed over 500 civilians, 100 of them children (VDC database). That’s a larger number than those killed by Assad’s airforce in that period.

However if we look at these events in the lightof  Russia’s objectives and strategy in Syria they can be seen not as contradictory but as complementary.

In a previous post I outlined Russia’s strategy for the Vienna process, which I described as seeking “a deal …that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest.”

Events since then have clarified how Russia hopes to bring this about. First they managed to secure the assent of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the initial steps in this process: at a joint press conference held by Kerry and Lavrov on 15 December Kerry responded with an extraordinary outburst when he was asked “ can you just respond to the decision by the opposition last week that he [Assad] should go right at the start of a political transition process?”

Kerry replied,

With respect to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh, that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communique [sic]; it is not the basis of the UN resolution.…that is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously. So for those people who are going to participate, they understand we are participating under the Geneva communique.

So we now have Russo-American agreement that the regime under Assad is not only a legitimate interlocutor for the first round of negotiations (accepted by the opposition) but also a potential participant in the “governance” that will follow – in other words this would be a “power sharing” arrangement between regime and opposition. The US may have not (yet) bought into the rest of the Russian scenario which goes as follows: the power sharing administration takes the form of a Government operating under Assad’s presidency; this administration agrees a new Constitution which retains the Presidential system; Assad stands in the 2018 Presidential election, and given the continuing influence of regime patronage, the lack of a high-visibility opposition candidate, and the continuing oversight of the Syrian security services, manages to engineer a victory. It may be difficult to pass the test of UN “supervision” of these elections, but the question then becomes (to paraphrase Mussolini’s famous comment about the Pope) “how many divisions has Staffan de Mistura got”

The attraction of this scenario seems to have caused a shift in the position of the Syrian regime, which started out by rejecting the idea that there could be any agreement with “terrorists”. They now, however, seem to have discovered the potential in the Russian version of this process, which they see leading to the formation of a “national unity government”, without a whiff of “transition” around.

There are however certain essential preconditions which must be met if this plan is to be realised. The first is that the Syrian regime must be able to appear to have some power worth sharing (a far from self-evident proposition giving their military dependence on a rag-tag of foreign and domestic militias; and their economic dependence on Iranian financial support and UN aid programmes.)

A closely related second objective is that it must re-establish its authority over the main population centres in order to be confident of engineering a credible victory in a future election. (Two recent opinion polls in Syria suggests this is going to be very much an uphill struggle)

In practical terms, this means eliminating any challenge to the regime’s control over the Alawite heartland of Latakia and Tartous; eradicating or marginalising the irritating presence of opposition forces in the Rif Damasq that surrounds the capital; completing the establishment of regime authority over the city and district of Homs; and securing the arterial transport links between the Capital, and the cities of Homs and Hama.

It would have been nice from this perspective to reassert regime control over all of Aleppo, but that is something that can probably wait.

It is also important to prevent any form of credible alternative governance emerging in opposition areas that might suggest Assad is not the only game in town.

We can see how these objectives have been reflected in current strategy of Russia and the regime.  Several analysts have suggested that Syria is being prepared for partition by moves like the proposed population exchange between Zabadani and Fua and Kefraya. But in my view that is a misreading: there is no possibility that Assad will preside over the overt break-up of the “Syrian Arab Republic” with which his dynastic legitimacy is so intrinsically bound up (nor would Iran find much virtue in the costly dependency of a rump state.)

No – what is going on here is an exercise, not in Partition but in Consolidation and Containment.

The biggest fly in the ointment from this perspective is Idlib, where opposition forces have control of the provincial capital, almost all the province, and several important centres in adjoining south Aleppo, like Maarat al-Numan. It is no coincidence that the Russian bombing offensive has been heavily focused on this area, with more than half the death toll due to Russian bombing operations located here.

Elsewhere the strategy takes different forms: in Zabadani, Madaya, and several towns of the Damascus countryside it is pursued though ruthless sieges that aim to bring opposition communities to their knees. In al-Waer – the main obstacle to regime Consolidation in Homs – it assumes a softly-softly approach in which concessions are granted in exchange for an incremental extension of regime authority.

Despite all this, there remain several problem areas for Russia and the regime. The first as I noted in my previous post is Russia’s inability to round up a credible alternative opposition that would sing from their hymn sheet. This shortcoming was underlined in when the two main wings of the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordinating Body came together for the first time since 2011 in Riyadh and agreed to the formation of a united delegation for peace negotiations with a common programme. The presence of several major armed groups– the first time the armed opposition has been committed to a negotiation process – further underlined the credibility of the Riyadh meeting.

Russia has responded with a petulant rejection of the “Riyadh opposition”. But unable to compose a viable alternative they have simply put forward a list of 15 names who they demand are included in the opposition side of the talks. The “Moscow”15 includes only one serious political force –  the Kurdish PYD, taking advantage of an opposition “own goal” in which  they refused to include the PYD in the Riyadh Conference. The remaining names are of people linked to small opposition groups with no significant following, and Russia’s perennial protégé Qadri Jamil, whose “opposition” credentials are tarnished by his having served as a Deputy Prime Minister under Assad. This is nothing more than a spoiling operation by Russia, which put the Vienna process into slow motion for several days.

Of course this is merely a side show to the real burning issue –  how can a serious peace process develop when the regime and its allies continue with their campaign of mass homicide and starvation? The opposition grouping that emerged from Riyadh has quite rightfully highlighted this but have received no support from either Kerry nor de Mistura, both of whom continue to insist that the talks must begin “without preconditions”.

Nevertheless, de Mistura, did, for the first time, display a certain amount of mettle at his most recent (25 January) Press Conference. He reminded the press corps (and through them the Russians) that the Security Council had given him sole authority to determine the list of opposition invitees and announced that he would be sending out invitations “tomorrow”, for a round of meetings  that would begin on 29 January. He batted away a question about the lack of an expanded list of “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from the peace process saying that he was working on the basis of the Security Council decision which had scheduled only ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby rebuffing Russia’s other big spoiling manoeuvre. He also stated that in determining who to invite he was adopting the criteria of “inclusiveness and substantial weight” If he does draw on the latter consideration that will eliminate a very large part of the “Moscow” opposition.

We will see when de Mistura’s list is revealed just how much independence he is really asserting. The first test will be whether Jaish al-Islam is included: they are part of the Riyadh opposition and an important component of the armed opposition but a force that Russia has been determined to add to the terrorist list (an effort they backed up by assassinating the Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush.) The second test will be how many of the Moscow list are included: Saleh Muslim of the PYD seems a virtual certainty; British-Syrian academic Rim Turkmani could be included (if she is willing) to strengthen the representation of women; but the inclusion of Qadri Jamil would reflect a failure of nerve by Da Mistura.

De Mistura indicated that the next round of the Vienna process will be “proximity talks” i.e. the participants will gather in separate spaces and De Mistura and his aides will shuttle between them trying to establish areas of agreement. This would make it possible for him to manage a dialogue with several participants – the Syrian regime and Riyadh opposition, and others.

But if de Mistura does not deliver what the Russians want they undoubtedly have a Plan B, based on the behaviour of the Syrian government during the 2013 Geneva conference – step up the killing in Syria to try and force the legitimate opposition into pulling out.

In any event, the counter enumerating the Syrian deaths sustained in order to keep Assad and his clique in power is likely to continue ticking up in the coming weeks and months.

The al-Waar Truce

On the Ground: the al-Waar Truce

Two weeks ago, on 1 December, a “truce” was agreed between the Syrian regime and the people of al-Waar (a large suburban district on the edge of Homs city). The last centre held by opposition forces in the Homs area, al-Waar once had a population of 300, 000 but today only about 75 000 remain. Many of al-Waar’s residents are evacuees from Homs Old Town who were allowed to leave that district under a previous agreement in May 2014. For the past 19 months the district has been under siege and bombardment by the Syrian regime, with the entry of both food and medical supplies severely curtailed.

The truce agreement is due to be implemented in three stages, the first of which began on 9 December. It seems that that its main provisions are:

1.A ceasefire (which presumably means that regime forces will cease their bombing, shelling and sniping at targets in the district; while opposition fighters will stop offensive operations against the Syrian army);

  1. Opening of the main checkpoint leading into the town and admission of essential humanitarian aid ‑ food and medical supplies.
  2. The release of prisoners and detainees held by both sides.
  3. The evacuation of vulnerable people – children, the elderly and those in need of urgent medical treatment.

In order to facilitate the truce it was agreed that those fighters unwilling to accept its terms would be allowed to leave the city securely with their light (and some medium )weapons and travel  to opposition controlled areas in Idlib and Hama.  Fighters who are prepared to observe the truce can remain (at least for the time being) with their weapons.

It’s clear that the UN was heavily involved in mediating and implementing this agreement. It was overseen by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El-Hillo, and  a senior aide of UN Special envoy on Syria Stefan de Mistura (de Mistura himself appears to have been in the city a few days previously) and videos show dozens of white UN vehicles escorting Red Crescent lorries bringing humanitarian aid in and buses taking vulnerable civilians and some fighters out of the city.

The first step in the truce was taken on 6 December when a large aid convoy was allowed to enter the city as a “confidence building” measure). This was followed three days later by the formal commencement of the truce and departure of approximately 1000 people – 300 fighters , 400 family members, and a further 300 vulnerable evacuees.

“Al-Waar will retain its revolutionary character”

However the bulk of the district’s current population of 75 000 are remaining including some 3 – 5000 fighters, who retain their weapons. Local inhabitants are adamant that the fighters must stay in order to guarantee the security of this oppositional community. As one fighter told Syria Direct

We won’t leave and abandon our families to become a target for the shabiha’s hatred … the truce we recognize is one that allows rebels to stay in the neighbourhood to protect civilians. In that case, we’ll abide by all conditions including a ceasefire.

According to Syria Direct the text of the agreement provides for two further stages, each 25 days apart. In these two stages opposition fighters will surrender their heavy weapons, and part of their medium ones, in exchange for the release of 5000 detainees.

This understanding of the agreement was underlined in a series of reports and interviews posted on You Tube by the Homs Media Centre:

The agreement is a ceasefire, not mass immigration. Population and fighters for the most part have chosen to stay. Bombing will stop, military engagements will stop, but fighters will stay.

The Ceasefire is purely humanitarian but won’t have political effect. All revolutionary brigades remain and the area is not going to be under the control of the regime as it is alleging. We just had to make some concessions to get vital humanitarian support.

(Acknowledgement: My thanks to Yasmine Nahlawi of Rethink Rebuild Society for translating the videos)

This view  also appears to be endorsed by the United Nations: UN Humanitarian Coordinator El-Hillo confirmed in a statement to Reuters, “All the options are there. For fighters wishing to continue being opponents but without allowing for this to take the neighbourhood back to where it came from, that (option) is there,”

The Syrian regime, however, seems to be singing from a rather different hymn-sheet.

The State news agency SANA, reported Homs Governor Talal al- Barazi, who negotiated the agreement from the regime side, as follows:

During the second stage, al-Barazi said, the gunmen willing to go back to their normal lives will have their legal status settled, noting that all state institutions will go back to work in the neighbourhood in the course of the second and third stages.

By the end of the third stage, al-Waar neighbourhood will be clear of weapons and gunmen and under the full control of the state, according to the Governor. (my emphasis)This phrase of Barazi’s has become the formula that pro-regime sources routinely employ to describe the truce.

The confusion is compounded by a report from BBC journalist Lise Doucet who was in al-Waar for the start of the truce. Writing in The Observer of 13 December she states, “the ceasefire’s detailed document makes it clear that security will now be in the hands of the Homs General Intelligence Branch and the civil police. The return of the Syrian security service to al –Waar is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the agreement (and one is left wondering if there may not be two different texts of the agreement in existence).

In a press release issued on 11 December the UN made it clear that it regards the al-Waar truce as the first fruit of the Vienna process, quoting de Mistura: “initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities and have great value … They help the perception that a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the members of the ISSG is doable and that the UN can and will do its part.”

However the role of the UN in this event has been dubious at best. The first thing that must be said is that it is quite shameful that the UN should have been party to a process that made the receipt of humanitarian aid by an acutely deprived community conditional. Not only is the receipt of such aid a basic human right but the Vienna declaration explicitly states  “pursuant to clause 5 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG discussed the need to take steps to ensure expeditious humanitarian access throughout the territory of Syria pursuant to UNSCR 2165 and called for the granting of the UN’s pending requests for humanitarian deliveries.”

Having been blockaded for some 4 months, there must surely have been a humanitarian delivery “pending” for al-Waar – why then did its residents of have to submit to further delays and to make a series of concessions to the regime before relief was provided?

It seems that the UN in this instance was motivated by an overriding  desire to chalk up a “victory” for Stefan de Mistura’s long standing plan of securing local cease fires, even if it meant downplaying the rights of 75 000 people. (It must however be granted that the UN took its responsibilities in the implementation of the accord seriously, providing a security escort for the convoy of evacuees moving from the city to other areas).

The second observation is that the UN has presided over the drafting of a very ambiguous agreement without publishing either the text or a substantive summary of it provisions. This opens the way for the regime to abuse the process and push the more far-reaching conditions that it is has openly announced. Far from being a model for securing  a nationwide ceasefire, al-Waar has all the potential to become a classic example of how NOT to mediate in a deep conflict situation. Only time will tell.

But it won’t take much time. The second  phase of the Al-Waar truce is due to begin in the first week of January. That will coincide approximately with the exhaustion of the supplies delivered at the start of the siege, so we will have a clear test at that point of the intentions of the regime and the capacity  of the United Nations to meet its obligations to the people of al-Waar, and of Syria.


12 December 2015: Al Waar residents remind a visiting high level UN delegation of Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2165 (prohibiting attacks on civilian populations and calling for the free flow of humanitarian aid)

The House of Commons’ Contract with Syrians

Just over a week ago – on Wednesday 2nd December ­ – the House of Commons voted to support British participation in the Coalition bombing of ISIS in Syria. The discussion that preceded the vote was lengthy and wide ranging. However its quality was highly variable. Some MPs, like Gerald Kaufmann (a former Shadow Foreign Secretary), demonstrated a clear understanding of the nature of the Assad regime, who he described as” murders” that he “would be delighted to see got rid of”.

There were good contributions from MPs who had visited the region recently: Mary Creagh (Shadow International Development Secretary ) who had visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, expressed regrets that she had not voted for action against the Assad regime in 2013 and urged “We need a ceasefire, a political settlement, and a path to democratic elections”; while Natalie McGarry who had visited the Kurdish region of Syria, called for “the creation of a safe no-bomb zone in Syria”.

However other MPs set themselves up as instant “experts” on contentious questions, making snap judgements with very little knowledge to back them up. There was widespread scepticism voiced across the House in the government’s claim of 70 000 moderate armed oppositionists who could follow up coalition bombing and move into areas liberated from ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn drew on the briefing he had been provided by Patrick Cockburn to make an ill-informed reference to “the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country”. But no one seemed to have read the article by Charles Lister, probably the leading expert on jihadist groups in Syria, that provided a detailed catalogue of “moderate” forces in Syria closely tallying  with the 70 000 figure, despite the fact that it had appeared 5 days previously.

In other discussions Syrians were treated like political footballs: Jeremy Corbyn quoted from a letter that had been sent by a Syrian to bolster his case against participation in the Syrian bombing, while  Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach quoted another letter that had been sent to MPs by Syrians to support her arguments in favour of bombing ISIS in Syria. But neither displayed much interest in the real issue concerning Syrians – that of protection of Syrian civilians from the ravages of the Syrian regime and its allies.

However there was one red thread that ran through many of the speeches – a promise that as much effort would be put into the resolution of the Syrian conflict as into the dropping of bombs on ISIS.

The resolution adopted by the House of Commons stated:

This House … notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement

A similar message was conveyed by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn:

We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hopes of achieving a ceasefire that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of—they just want to be able to go home. (my emphasis)

These fine words, and the many like them, will probably be forgotten in the coming months by those who uttered them, but in uttering them the House of Commons has effectively entered into a contract with Syrians:  ­ they have promised them relief from the terrible violence they are currently subjected to, and a clear movement towards a political order in which the aspirations that took them to the streets in 2011 can be realised – freedom, dignity, and democracy.

Will Vienna provide that? I remain highly sceptical, but whatever happens we should hold the House of Commons – especially Cameron, Benn and Corbyn ‑ to their word. if Vienna starts to fail Syrians and their supporters have the right to demand forthright actions that will deliver what has been promised.

The timetable for the Vienna process is lengthy, but there are clear milestones that can be used to track its progress. It promises immediate “confidence building measures”, the first of which is the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. To this we can add steps which are self-evident although not spelled out in Vienna: the release of detainees; and an end to the bombing of civilians. Nobody in their right mind could imagine a peace process unfolding without these minimal conditions being met.

But we cannot assume that the orators of last Wednesday will have the attention span necessary to monitor whether or not these things are actually happening. That is a task that must fall to civil society activists in Syria and the solidarity movement internationally.

Let me start that monitoring by reporting what happened in Syria on 2 December 1015 while Parliament was deliberating:

  • 26 civilians were killed, including 8 children: 16 at the hands of the regime and 10 under the impact of Russian bombs
  • 12 Free Syrian Army fighters died in combat with ISIS (not only from the “non-existent” FSA but in a place where according to Corbyn they don’t exist ‑ Northern Aleppo)

Over the coming months I plan to continue tracing the progress of the Vienna plan and  to provide periodic reports on this blog, under the heading Vienna Watch.