[The agreement reached between opposition fighters and the Syrian regime with respect to Homs has solicited an array of speculation as to what it precisely represents. When combined with the recent resignation of UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, both events are interpreted as signals of a key shift in the balance of power, both politically and on the ground, between the regime and the opposition forces in Syria. Jadaliyya turned to researcher/scholar of political economy and co-editor of Jadaliyya`s Syria Page Omar Dahi to lay out some of the basics and provide an initial framework for making sense of the two most recent developments.]
Jadaliyya (J): How, why and by whom was the Homs Agreement reached, and what are its main elements?
Omar Dahi (OD): The main components of the 7 May agreement consisted of the evacuation of opposition fighters and civilians from besieged areas of Homs to rebel-held safe havens outside the city, in exchange for the release of captives held within Homs by the opposition and permission for humanitarian supplies to enter two villages near Aleppo that are considered pro-regime and have been under siege by opposition forces for about two years. The fighters were allowed to take light weapons with them. The deal could not have taken place without intense Iranian pressure on the regime and involved direct negotiations between Iranian officials and opposition forces.
J: Does this agreement alter the balance of power within Syria, and does it have wider strategic significance for the Syria conflict?
OD: Yes. While the agreement itself has not altered the balance of power it represents the culmination of a long process that saw regime forces steadily gaining the upper hand and establishing clearer front lines, for example taking over rebel enclaves in Damascus and its surroundings north to Homs and the coastal region. This process has established clearer front lines between areas within and outside regime control, starting south of Damascus through central Syria, to the coastal region and including half of Aleppo. The rest of the country remains outside regime control and is further divided into two regions, one autonomous region in the northeast dominated by Kurdish political parties and the rest being contested by various armed militias. This de facto splintering of the country into three regions is being entrenched by the day and all external power brokers are complicit in this process because they are seeking to secure their foothold in the country without regards to the integrity or interests of Syria and its people. Any political settlement that may emerge from this process will reflect a devastated country and divided population.
J: Does this agreement tell us anything about the growing or diminishing influence of foreign sponsors on either the regime or the armed opposition?
OD: It demonstrates the increasing influence of foreign sponsors, specifically Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is a lot of analysis on how the opposition has changed over the last three years but not as much about the regime itself. This is not the same regime as three years ago. In 2011 it was a relatively autonomous regime with external alliances. Today it is much more subservient militarily, financially, and politically to its main ally, Iran.
While the regime has been losing autonomy, the political opposition never had any to begin with. The Syrian National Council (SNC), and now the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces were beholden to regional powers, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, from their very inception. That is why rearrangements in the leadership and structure of these organizations do not reflect changes emerging from Syria but rather the rivalries and shifting priorities of their patrons. In terms of the armed oppositions, and I use the plural advisedly, they too are dependent on flows of money and weapons, and are increasingly fighting each other for control of territory outside regime control rather than fighting the regime. In order to combat this process the struggle for Syrians’ rights has to be reframed as one against the reality and logic of militarization, sectarianism, and foreign influence and control.
J: Do you expect similar agreements to be reached in other major flashpoints such as Aleppo?
OD: I would not be surprised if similar agreements are struck in Aleppo, particularly in light of upcoming Saudi-Iranian talks. Syrians, whether they have been displaced or not are tired of war. Most are likely to support any move towards a ceasefire, an improvement in the security situation, and a return of normal economic life. This does not mean we are necessarily heading towards a stable equilibrium. For one thing, the coming period is likely to witness further division and fragmentation within rather than between the warring camps. This holds equally true for the regime and its militias as well. There are also differences among the allies. We know about the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the Syrian regime and Iran are not on the same page either.
At the moment it appears Iran is more likely to be pushing for some sort of settlement. There are other issues as well. The regime does not have the money for reconstruction and whoever foots the bill will demand a political price. There is the issue of IDPs and refugees. As soon as the fighting settles down the host countries will start pushing them to return to Syria. There are already declarations in Lebanon being made by officials from both blocks that the refugees should return, whether to regime or rebel-held territory. Finally there are the reasons behind the 2011 uprising. War fatigue may lead to ceasefires but it will not result in peace unless there is a transition that addresses basic rights and moves toward a more inclusive political and economic order.
J: Is there a relationship between this agreement and the presidential elections proclaimed for 3 June?
OD: Yes and no. No in that the timing is coincidental because the Homs deal was not the result of a regime initiative. However it does allow the regime to claim that it has regained control over key areas of Syria and can project its power over large parts of the country despite three years of warfare.
J: What is the significance of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi`s resignation and what might this mean for UN efforts to address the Syria Crisis?
OD: The Brahimi resignation was not surprising as his mission had run its course. The hoped-for objective of the Geneva process was the formation of a transitional unity government and postponement of presidential elections until the process was completed.
But realities on the ground, particularly the regime’s military advances, implied that the Geneva process is more or less finished. The most important power broker, Iran, was disinvited from the Geneva talks. Direct negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia as currently scheduled outside UN auspices are at least a more honest and direct approach than the façade of intra-Syrian talks. This is the sad and bitter outcome that is the result of a regime determined to hold onto power at all costs, and a political opposition determined to remove it regardless of the consequences.
The UN’s role at this point is mainly one of humanitarian aid and economic recovery. The needs in this regard are unprecedented in UN history for single crisis. It may have a role in the future if there is an agreement on peacekeepers but that seems a distant prospect.