Syria: Sorting the Mess Out (by Ambassador Yakovenko, for Evening Standard)

The recent meeting of the IGSS in Munich came up with the plan to try to find ways to reach a cessation of hostilities between Syrian patriotic opposition groups and the Government, while not compromising the cause of fighting Isis, Jebhat an-Nusra and other terrorists. The urgency of this plan was brought about by the successes of the Syrian army offensive, which, in view of the experts, has gradually built up a critical mass for a potential endgame in the civil war.
To have an idea of the sheer challenge facing the international community, one has to look back at how the Syrian situation evolved over the past four years. We witnessed the process of radicalization on the side of the opposition. Many Syrian groups bet on foreign terrorist organizations which were well supplied and financed by various regional players, who projected their domestic political agendas onto the Syrian battleground. It came to the point when the Americans gave up on finding among the opposition the people they could trust. According to J.Clapper, there are 1500 groups fighting the Syrian Government. We were told by our British interlocutors a few months ago that the situation in Syria was a complete mess. The situation was further complicated by emergence of Isis, an explosive mix of religious fanatics and the rump of the Iraqi Baathist regime, including Saddam Hussein officer corps.
In the meantime the US assembled their anti-Isis coalition of about 70 members, which delivered ineffective airstrikes at Isis targets for more than a year before Russia had to intervene with its Air Force. Since midsummer 2015 we were told by our Western partners that in October Damascus would fall to the Isis. What they were planning to do next we don’t know. Probably, to wash the extremists white and present them as a Sunni state in Iraq and Syria.
In these circumstances Russa’s interference was a critical game-changer, allowing the patriotic Syrian opposition to re-appropriate their cause of a democratic and secular Syria, which was hijacked by foreign terrorists and mutated towards a caliphate. It was only then, that the main international and regional actors could come together within IGSS to engage in a comprehensive effort to find a political solution in Syria and to eradicate terrorists. The scale of this ambitious dual task has never been underestimated, given the situation on the ground. That’s why the Group agreed to compile the lists of bona fide opposition and terrorist groups. This proved to be difficult because of the regional scheming. For example, the Syrian Kurds haven’t been invited to Geneva talks because of Ankara’s opposition.
Now it was agreed to set up a working group under US and Russian co-chairs to map out the opposition and in this way to try to separate the wheat from the chaff. That would allow patriotic opposition to sever their alliances with terrorists which, in fact, mortgaged the future of their country to alien ideological and domestic agendas. It would also unshackle the Syrian army on all fronts as the main force to fight the terrorists on the ground. Thus a common anti-terrorist front would come into being, while a political solution to the Syrian crisis is discussed between the Government and the opposition in Geneva. Neither Russian Air Force, nor US-led coalition will cease their airstrikes against terrorists and their infrastructure.
This is the real chance to resolve the Syrian problem which festered for too long poisoning the regional context.

An edited version of this article has been published at