More than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed on Thursday 27th in the Idlib region by an airstrike carried out by the Assad regime’s air force. Ankara has asked an emergency meeting of the NATO alliance on Friday – during which it may ask to trigger NATO’s Article 5 – while after 4 years Turkish authorities have reopened their western borders to allow the passage of Syrian refugees headed towards Europe. Such a rapid escalation contradicts the impression that many have shared over the last 3 years. The Astana group – formed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey – that has “managed” the Syrian conflict for three years suddenly does not look as solid and rational as it used to be until just a few weeks ago. And a dramatic, unpredictable military solution is reemerging as the only possible endgame of the Syrian crisis. To understand why this is happening we need widen our focus and understand why the kind of solutions proposed by the Astana agreements and their likes cannot work. A lesson we should learn fast not only regarding the Syrian crisis but also about Libya.
In the 19th century, during the old times of the European hegemony, it was called “the concert of powers”: a group of powerful European nations, always in competition with each other, meeting periodically to discuss and solve crises taking place anywhere in the world. Compromises were reached taking into account each European nation’s interests and power relatively to the others, with little or no concern for local dynamics. Things only slightly changed with the surge of a bipolar system during the second half of the 20th century. Almost all world crises were tackled through the frame of the great power competition between the Western and the Eastern blocks. As during the “European concert” era, little regard was reserved for local dynamics and local actors’ interests.
Things changed slightly in the 1990s, during the brief period of the American unipolar hegemony. Solving crises began to mean that, once the interests of the US and its main allies were secured, a bit more space could be conceded to local voices and interests. This led to some limited results, such as the Oslo process on Palestine and the Dayton agreements on Bosnia. During this period, the interventions of Western countries would ensure that their favorite factions in communal conflicts gained the upper hand. Then, once that target had been achieved, they would guarantee also to the other sides some extent of representation in the post-conflict settlement.
This relatively new approach stemmed from the recognition that conflict settlements – especially in civil conflicts – are hard to achieve simply by guaranteeing the complete victory of one side. The rationale is quite simple: while in inter-state wars the losing side can simply surrender and retreat within its borders, in communal conflicts one side’s complete defeat may easily translate into its total annihilation. Thus, all sides tend to fight to the end, unless a compromise guaranteeing at least a modicum of their interests (and safety) is reached. Of course, in some cases the fact that Western interests had to be secured first complicated, rather than eased, the achievement of effective compromises. Nevertheless, at least the principle that communal hostilities have to be solved through political rather than military means and that compromises have to involve primarily domestic rather than external actors became slowly mainstream.
Over the last decade, while the West’s hegemony on world affairs was rapidly fading away, this rational has guided the approach of the UN to conflict resolution, especially in the MENA region. In contexts like Syria, Libya, or Yemen, UN envoys have tried to involve local factions and interest groups in negotiations in order to reach a compromise shared by most domestic actors. In some instances, they also involved foreign sponsors, but only in order to smooth the way towards a compromise among locals. Their efforts, however, have met with constant failure in all recent MENA crises, leading to prolonged conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes especially in Syria and Yemen.
While the UN approach has collected failure after failure, a new approach has been emerging, whose underlying logic stress the superior importance of external backers – and their interests – to achieve stabilization. It started with Syria – with the formation of the so-called Astana group – and has recently seen its application to the Libyan conflict as well, with the launch of the Berlin initiative. According to this approach, external powers backing local actors meet in order to reach a shared framework to “manage” the conflict. An approach that does not just legitimize foreign meddling in communal wars but even elevates the meddlers’ interests over those of local actors, of which they become “representatives” at the negotiation table. Interestingly, while in the case of Syria this approach was undertaken by powers that, to different extents, over the last years have been criticizing the West-dominated world order and its rule-based approach, in the case of Libya it was fully embraced even by Western powers present at the Berlin Conference, such as Germany, France, and Italy.
At first glance, this new approach – that we could call “the Concert of Meddlers” – seems a more realist one. All recent initiatives involving primarily local actors failed due to their narrow focus. They fatally ignored the interests of powerful external backers, eventually leading them to sabotage any peace efforts. However, this seemingly more realist approach may soon reveal equally based on wishful thinking, especially for those actors still sincerely hoping for a political solution. The reason relies in the very logic that decades ago led international actors and organizations to give more space to local interests and dynamics: in the long run, domestic actors have essential interests in reaching a compromise guaranteeing their safety and mutual survival within the borders of the territory they share. On the opposite, external actors do not have any need to back down if there is still a chance to achieve their interests. They do not see any immediate risk for themselves in perpetuating the proxy war, which makes their positions far less keen to compromise.
The Syrian case is quite explanatory: for some time it looked like the Astana group had found a framework to “manage” the conflict and accommodate each member’s competing interests. However, a closer analysis of what is occurring today reveals that much of their “conflict management” was about perpetuating the military crisis while taking care of those interests that did not conflict with those of the other Astana group’s members. The outcome was nothing else than constant postponement of an inevitable military solution. The main product of the Astana meetings – the so-called de-escalation zones – rapidly emerged as expedients used by the Assad regime to reconquer almost all lost territories one by one. At the same time, Ankara – technically the opposition’s main sponsor – could secure buffer territories in the country’s north at the detriment of the local Kurdish militias. This was possible since Russia, Iran and Turkey did not see these targets as incompatible with each other. All those issues that they could not solve – for example the fate of the Idlib region and its almost 3 million inhabitants – were simply ignored and postponed. In the meantime, a political process role-play – the so-called Constitutional Committee – took place briefly with no influence whatsoever on the actual conflict’s developments. The current fallout between Moscow and Ankara over the Idlib is nothing else than the inevitable violent resolution of the ambiguities that previous negotiations had left unresolved. Inevitably, their resolution is going to be reached militarily, with the only difference that this time at least one of the three Astana group’s members – most likely Turkey – will have to accept a zero-sum solution to its disadvantage.
Thus, as the Astana process – the first experiment of the new approach – emerged as nothing else than an expedient to buy time, regroup, and slowly reach a military solution, the Berlin initiative risks the same fate. The barely-standing ceasefire agreement reached in the German capital already looks as nothing more as a pause in the conflict that each side is using to rearm and regroup before the next round. Even the new European mission to enforce the arms embargo looks more as an attempt to favor militarily one side over the other, through the imposition of an embargo mainly naval that would damage mostly the GNA. If any of the participants in the Berlin truly believe that this initiative could be a concrete chance for a political solution he or she should rapidly reconsider this position. The “new approach” inaugurated in Astana is not a new framework to achieve political solutions to conflicts in the new multipolar era. It is just an elegant, diplomatic cover for purely military solutions. Some participants at the Berlin Conference seem to have understood this rather well. The UAE resumed its supplying activities for Haftar just a few hours after the conference’s end, as did Turkey for the GNA. European countries still believing in a political solution should realize this quickly and react accordingly, for example by reinforcing the air component of the new European mission. However, even more importantly, they should rethink the entire approach that is emerging, which excludes completely the representation of local entities at the table. The world may have changed dramatically, but some golden rules still stand: for example, the one dictating that local conflicts can be solved only by involving local actors.