Only Iran reaping geopolitical benefits as Syria crisis is sidelined at UN

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Perhaps it’s the dangerous global threat from North Korean nukes. Maybe it’s political fatigue and crisis overload. Or it could be the escalating ethnic cleansing in Burma.

But the long running and brutal Syrian civil war has become largely an afterthought for many delegates at the current UN Assembly session.

Last year Syria’s sanguinary headlines and gripping humanitarian saga still dominated UN discussions. Nonetheless a deadlocked Security Council with Western countries, the USA, Britain and France facing off China and Russia seemed to set the conflict in stone, and allow it to slip into near oblivion with new disasters in Yemen and Burma/Myanmar taking the limelight.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria.

Yet, Syria’s political calculus and dynamic has changed.

American and coalition forces are soundly defeating the barbarous Islamic State (ISIS) while Russia’s military intervention has truly tipped the military balance away from the terrorists and back towards the Assad regime in Damascus.

After six years of civil conflict, more than 500,000 killed, and millions of Syrians civilians internally displaced or having fled as refugees, there could finally be an endgame. But the word victory presents an illusion.

The good news is that diplomats have brokered six major “de-confliction zones” inside the country. Unofficial ceasefires if you will.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told the Security Council that, “The situation remains fragile and highly susceptible to backsliding.” He adds that while “ISIL is being beaten back” and that government (namely Assad) forces have broken some rebel sieges, conflict continues.

“As terrorism is being defeated in Syria, we need to preserve those gains on the ground and sustain them through a real and inclusive political process,” stressed de Mistura. The eighth in a series of political talks in Geneva are planned for late October. He stressed, “No one is asking the opposition to suddenly stop being an opposition,” but he urged unity among the maze of groups opposing the central government.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Humanitarian Chief, while praising the overall military “de-escalation” in the conflict, nonetheless stressed the ongoing sieges of Syrian towns by both the government and the opposition. While the Syrian military finally broke the siege of Deir ez-Zor town liberating 93,000 citizens, the fact remains that “419,920 people most of them, according to UNICEF, children, now remain besieged in 10 locations across Syria. Of these, 95 percent are besieged by the Government of Syria,” he recounted.

In other words, medieval style sieges of towns reducing the inhabitants to starvation, squalor and sickness continue to plague Syria. Lowcock conceded, “The Syrian people remain trapped in a cycle of violence that must be broken.”

U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley stated, “Although there has been some lessening of the violence in Syria, this is no time to become complacent. If the Syrian people don’t see a political process working in parallel with our de-escalation efforts, the violence will resume. Any gains against ISIS will only be temporary.”

Amb. Haley stressed realistically, “But the only lasting solution in Syria, the only way to end the violence and defeat terrorism, is through a political transition, one that does not allow Iranian influence to replace ISIS or Assad in power. If the civil war continues, more people will suffer.”

Again easier said than done. The power vacuum in Syria which the Obama Administration allowed, permitted Vladimir Putin to militarily intervene to prop up the then teetering Assad.

Equally, a maze of terrorist groups proliferated, ISIS, Al Qaida and Al Nussra among them. Correspondingly the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Hizbullah militia from Lebanon, tipped the balance towards Damascus.

Russia, along with Iran and Turkey have thrown their weight behind a political process, but probably not to our liking.

Though I vigorously disagree with Turkey’s President/Sultan Tayep Erdogan’s machinations in neighboring Syria, we must concede that Turkey has taken in over two million Syrian refugees. This is economically and politically destabilizing. Turkey wants a political quid pro quo for its humanitarian efforts.

Yet it is Iran who plays a far more sophisticated geopolitical game in this ancient land.

Iran’s Shiite clerics support the minority Shiite/Alawite clan in Syria through which they can fuel division of the Islamic communities in the region. Equally Teheran has gained a military foothold on the Mediterranean allowing Iran a strategic advantage.

The EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini warned, “The war in Syria is not over yet. The people of Syria are still suffering.” Finding a political solution remains elusive. Nonetheless, no matter which side ultimately gains it’s only a Pyrrhic victory.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]