UN General Assembly 2018: Fatigue in the West over Syria's civil war is likely to downgrade its place at UNGA
With Bashar Al Assad's survival seemingly assured, UN faces a different debate on Syria
Though not openly admitted, Syria has fallen down the agenda of the world’s most powerful nations in the past 12 months.
With the United States and major European countries preoccupied by domestic concerns, there is no belief that gains can be made from a stronger policy to counter President Bashar Al Assad.
The notable exception to non-engagement is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has filled a vacuum and become the leading international figure in the process of deciding Syria’s future.
While there is wide agreement that there can be no military solution, the killing continues. Talk of the need for a political settlement is shared, but there is no consensus or discernible progress being made.
The Geneva peace talks – a UN process – have foundered to the point of not being taken seriously. A rival Astana peace process led by Russia, Iran and Turkey, calculated on their interests, was a spoiler. The survival of the Assad regime, a goal that benefits the interests of Russia and Iran, his strongest regional rival, seems assured.
The one blip in the past 12 months to Mr Al Assad's otherwise upward trajectory was the US, British and French military strikes on a number of Syrian targets on April 14.
The Pentagon said action was taken to destroy chemical weapons facilities that had produced the deadly toxins that killed at least 40 people in the rebel-held town of Douma a week earlier.
Use of chemical weapons appears to be the one subject that generates diplomatic traction on Syria. Yet the war has since proceeded on a linear path; the Assad regime retakes territory and rebels are dispersed. The recent halting of an offensive in Idlib, at the behest of Turkey, is likely to be postponement rather than abandonment of the military action wanted by the Syrian regime and its allies in Moscow and Tehran to bring about the war’s ultimate end.
US President Donald Trump, in an echo of his “America First” strategy, has said he wants his troops out of Syria, where their role is premised on the elimination of ISIS, not the Assad regime. Such statements have emboldened Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad and sped an irreversible path toward the latter’s victory over rebels.
In terms of the overall nature of the conflict little has changed since the UN General Assembly last met, except perhaps the pace. Steady fighting has been replaced by a more sporadic conflict. A pattern of agreements has seen rebels surrender territory in exchange for safe passage out of battle zones. Western and Middle Eastern states remain concerned by the human displacement the war has caused, but their worries are outweighed by an acceptance that those difficulties will be worsened by more war. The memories of Syrian refugees lined up in 2015 and 2016 desperate to reach Europe are never far away.
As such, this year’s meeting in New York – the eighth opening of the General Assembly since the Syrian conflict began – may see matters addressed in less combative terms.
“Maybe this is the first year that they can come to the UN bold enough to say they have weathered the storm,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia group consultancy, of the Assad regime.
“Syria has moved away from a US-centred debate and I don’t think they will push a lot, though there is still time for them to blame external powers,” an allusion to US and, likely, some French attention on Syria in New York.
Syria will be represented at the General Assembly on September 29 by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Walid Muallem, long a de facto spokesman for Mr Assad.
At last year’s meeting Mr Muallem was predictable in his criticism of western powers, chastising those he deemed guilty of “violating international and humanitarian laws”, while saying that Syria was committed to security, stability and reconciliation efforts. Since then tens of thousands more have been killed in fighting but it is another sign that the war has swung in Mr Al Assad’s favour that talk has moved away from those deaths, and any dwindling prospect of military confrontation, toward Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
Russia and Iran stand to gain the most from the rebuilding process; a quid pro quo for their longstanding support of Mr Assad. Mr Putin raised the subject of EU financing for construction during his recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose domestic political fortunes have slid since she accepted Syrian refugees, such is the virulence of anti-immigrant sentiment and populism in Europe.
The changing role of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president long opposed to Mr Al Assad, also signals a political shift. Mr Erdogan opened his border with Syria years ago to allow extremists to flood in and take the battle to Mr Al Assad’s forces, yet he is now the third rail of the power system that has replaced the West as brokers of Syria’s future.
Despite the political overtures toward acceptance of an Assad victory, peace seems a more fragile possibility filled with risk. The regime has waged war against its own people and more than half a million people have been killed. Reconciliation cannot be considered a given.
Several months ago, 3,000 Syrians in Lebanon – a tiny fraction of more than one million exiled there – were due to be repatriated. Regime officials only accepted 400, half of which eventually refused to return. The numbers had dwindled because families refused to be broken up after government officials pulled fighting-age males out of the group.
Russia, again, has said it can assist Lebanon in repatriation and recently the two countries’ foreign ministers met to that effect. Their chances of success look poor given the regime’s actions. Consequently, while the apparent wish of the US and Europe is that Syria will go away, the chances are that with Mr Al Assad now seemingly classed as the least bad option, the problem will simply evolve.