ROSS BURNS. Syria: the Task Ahead

The next attempt to hold UN-sponsored talks in Geneva with the main parties to the Syrian conflict is due to begin this week. With the defeat of ISIS on the ground, what hope is there that a clearer picture will emerge on whether the conflict might be reaching its final stages?  

The issues that lie behind the current phase of the Syrian conflict cannot be over-estimated. While the chances of a breakthrough in defining mutually agreeable terms for peace negotiations remain minimal, the effective removal of ISIS at least provides a chance for the parties to work through some broader themes.

Most interesting in this context is the joint declaration agreed on 11 November in Danang, Vietnam, by the US and Russian presidents, a remarkable text barely noted in the media but which represents a clear definition of common objectives. Among the most significant points of agreement:

  • commitment to the UN Geneva process (UNSCR 2254) leading to elections under UN supervision
  • support for Syria’s ‘sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity and non-sectarian character’.
  • the ultimate ‘elimination’ of foreign forces and foreign fighters’ from Syria.

While this may be brushed aside as another example of Putin’s manipulation of Trump, there are perhaps reasons for seeing it as a belated recognition by the American president that the only way out of the Syria mess is via Russian influence over Assad and with the help of Iran. This would end seven years of misguided American attempts to become a player in the conflict, scrabbling to find an agenda of its own beyond the destruction of IS. It also sends a strong signal that lopping off bits of Syria to suit the interests of Iran, Turkey or the Kurds, for example, is simply a recipe for a disaster likely to be even more prolonged than the last seven years of agony.

If Trump sticks to these terms of a broader understanding with Russia he would effectively be abandoning the fumbled attempts since the Obama era to fantasise about the possibility of an ‘Arab spring’ process in Syria. Obama’s calling for Assad’s removal without any identification of the consequences that might bring simply put well-motivated Syrian civilians into the firing line facing a regime determined to hold onto power. It inevitably led to the assumption that the world’s superpower would cover their backs. Sadly but inevitably, this simply paved the way for an armed opposition funded by numerous outsiders who had no interest in the sort of Syria defined in the second Danang dot point above. It transformed Syria (on a scale surpassing even post-2003 Iraq) into a playground for religious and ethnic fantasists on a global scale. The US (and many others) in 2011 simply failed to join the dots that led back not just to the Iraq meltdown post-2003 but to the Hama rebellion in Syria in 1982 as clear a demonstration as needed that the Assad family had a brutal answer to armed dissent.

Even if Trump has quietly recognised that the only way out of this mess is to work through Russia, the talks will still be prodigiously complex. Any solution that meets the Danang list will have to discourage Turkey from playing its Kurdish campaign on Syria soil, persuade the Kurds to limit their ambitions for a pan-Kurdish state and temper Hezbollah’s bid to spread its role beyond Lebanon. This will require sorting out problems one by one, not lumping them all into a bundle of issues spanning the region from Iran to the Mediterranean, often dressed up with clichés such as a ‘Shi`a corridor’ spanning the region. Sure, the region has differences to pick over but most of them have been around for twelve centuries. All the successful rulers over those centuries have shown that they have to be managed not manipulated to short-term advantage.

The Syrian battlefield remains a complex mess, even after the successful ousting of IS. There are still hotspots—virtually the whole of Idlib province west of Aleppo, parts of the steppe lapping across the main north-south transport corridor, the eastern fringes of the Damascus oasis, the Golan and the largely empty central Syrian Steppe (possibly destined to become Syria’s Sinai). Each involves a different set of complex local factors involving opposition elements who span the gamut from secular to ‘IS-lite’. Most are manipulated to some extent by outsiders who themselves may have territorial ambitions within Syria. Turkey in particular has been quick to setting up a presence across the norther border area, possibly mainly intended to prevent the Kurds setting up their own administrative structure.

The only way to prevent such erosion of Syrian sovereignty is to see the return of a civil administration answerable to a unified Syrian state. The new Saudi strongman, Mohammad bin Salman, however, is still seeking to play his anti-Iran hand across all the Mid East’s fault lines. Given that most of bin Salman’s Mid East initiatives have had questionable results—and with the US possibly now identifying a need to discourage his enthusiasm to ignite Siʿa-Sunni tensions on a region-wide scale—the need for all players in Syria to back off a little is increasingly paramount.

In all this, is reconstruction a pipe dream? The task will be formidable, requiring decades and it must start with civilian housing and infrastructure to buttress the process of restoring normal life, encouraging the return of refugees and economic activity. Aleppo, once the country’s entrepreneurial heartland should be the first focus. Even if Aleppo’s eastern quarter has been systematically turned to rubble, the last thing the Aleppines need is for outsiders to assume the city is entirely lost. Aleppo’s historic remains, for example, are often written off by commentators. I have closely followed the city’s agony for the last seven years preparing the first history of the city in English for publication. My website brings together visual data on the course of destruction in the form of a cumulative list of buildings damaged or destroyed. Of the city’s 700 or so registered historic monuments the number which have been eliminated or in substantial part toppled amounts to 16. Those which would require extensive rebuilding would add another 30. Those two categories amount to less than 7 percent of the city’s historic fabric.

These figures are necessarily provisional and not based on professional damage assessments on the ground. Though some losses are grievous blows to the city’s pre-2011 reputation as the most picturesque trading centre of the Silk Route, these figures do not represent total destruction, even if many other buildings would require partial reconstruction. So why do the pundits consistently assume that the city is ‘gone’? There could be no worse blow for the citizens of Aleppo than encouraging popular assumptions that their once handsome and welcoming city is now a lost cause.

Ross Burns was Australian Ambassador in Syria from 1984 to 1987.

Ross Burns’ Aleppo, A History (Routledge 2017) is due to be published as a paperback in Jan 2018. His website can be found at

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4 Responses to ROSS BURNS. Syria: the Task Ahead

  1. James O’Neill says:

    This is a useful summary but it misses out some vital points. The most important of these is a failure to recognise that ISIS and its various offshoots are a creation of the US. Although one will not read about it in the Australian msm, the current fighting demonstrates the extend of US support for terrorist groups, including evacuating by helicopter large numbers of ISIS fighters. There are many documented instances of US air power providing support for ISIS fighters, something that the RAAF has also been involved in.
    The Americans are currently claiming their intention to stay in Syria, notwithstanding that their presence is utterly without any legal basis (the same applies to Australia’s involvement). Both Russia and Syria have made it clear that a continued US military presence is utterly unacceptable. What will happen next in that context is a moot point. I also do not share the view that the Geneva talks will yield the desired result. Much more important are the Astana talks, in which the US is not a Party.

  2. David Macilwain says:

    Thankyou for allowing me to express my opinion on a subject which is barely discussed in Australia at this moment, and frankly also to present my own opposition to Ross Burn’s presentation of the seven years of war on Syria. Tony Kevin, as a former diplomat has already said much I would agree with, and most diplomatically, but there are some special points to add.
    First we simply must get away from the idea – the intentional framing of the war – as something the US “did not seek to be involved in”. It is a reality-denying idea, as the US and its allies were preparing for the war on Syria for many years before, and cultivating dissent and sectarian strife long before March 2011.
    The Saudis may have been the immediate link to the main jihadist groups, including IS and including in Iraq, but they worked in association with the Turks and Israel and the UAE as well as the US, as is so amply demonstrated by recent developments and discussions between those parties now that Russia and Iran and Hezbollah have helped to smash the violent mercenary armies across the country.
    What has also emerged recently however, is Australia’s apparent role in collaborating with these aggressor nations. Not only has the extent of Australian arms dealing and partnerships with the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis been shown to be significant and pursued actively as a major growth industry – by investigative journalist Anthony Loewenstein – but there is tacit support for the military campaigns and associated war crimes in which these countries are engaged, in both Yemen and Syria.
    Several weeks ago a BBC investigation, reported as “Raqqa’s Dirty Secret”, showed that the US-SDF coalition forces in Raqqa had organised not the surrender of Islamic State forces there, but the “re-deployment” of those forces to the battle front with the Syrian Army and its allies in the South East Deir al Zour province up to the Iraqi border. Even though the BBC report investigated the route of the convoy carrying hundreds or thousands of the “terrorists” and their families, as well as TEN truckloads of armaments, the destination of this convoy was concealed from Australian audiences, with the sole focus being on whether IS fighters might “come home”.
    While this revelation of apparent US coalition collaboration with Islamic State forces, in pursuit of their illicit goal of sequestering part of Syria, was absent in Australian media, for Russian and Iranian and independent media it was further proof of Western ill intent.
    I and others have already enquired from the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the question of Australia’s possible collaboration with the US coalition in these recent actions in Eastern Syria which have apparently targeted Syrian and Russian forces, but without response. The question has now become urgent, as yesterday minister Bishop made an extraordinary statement. Speaking alongside attorney general George Brandis, Bishop declared that the Australian government had now “recognised the Fall of Raqqa”. The consequence of this she said, was that Australians would no longer be prevented from travelling to Raqqa, or subject to action by the Australian government on their return.
    The question we must now ask of Bishop and of her government, is whether they intend to issue visas to Australians wishing to travel to the illegally occupied area of Syria which has “fallen” to the foreign forces and their local – but not necessarily Syrian – collaborators?
    Would any such Australian illegal entrants to Syria be protected from attacks or deportation by Syrian authorities or the Syrian Arab Army?

    Following the success of Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese forces helping the SAA in ridding the country of the foreign-backed terrorist armies of IS, despite the interference of NATO-backed forces, Russian and Syrian governments have courteously demanded that US coalition forces now leave Syrian territory, and cease supplying weaponry and support to their local or mercenary partners.
    Is Australia just going to pretend that it is not really there, hiding under the skirts of the US military machine – to which it is now evidently joined at the hip?

    We certainly do need to cooperate with the Russian government, and with Vladimir Putin’s planned meeting next week in Moscow, not because Russia “has to be included”, but because Russia is actually the legitimate actor with a coherent plan that supports Syrian and other regional interests, excepting those of the “anti-Syrian coalition”.
    They must withdraw, and then face consequences in the ICC.

  3. derrida derider says:

    “The only way to prevent such erosion of Syrian sovereignty is to see the return of a civil administration answerable to a unified Syrian state.”

    I can think of exactly such an administration. Can you not? A hint: it currently is winning the war.

    Russian intervention has of course been in pursuit of Russian interests, but in this case it clearly coincides with Western interests. They’ve saved us from our folly.

  4. Tony Kevin says:

    An interesting and welcome comment. I bow to Ross Burns’ immense knowledge of Syria and its complex history and ethnic/sectarian geography. A few comments from the perspective of my modest knowledge of Russia and Russia-West relations:

    Russia has been magnificently successful – yes, I know the phrase will irritate some, but it is my opinion – in bringing peace to Syria and getting its major foreign intervening states Turkey and Iran – and even, I suspect , Israel behind the scene – negotiating constructively with Russia both bilaterally and multilaterally. Hezbollah in Lebanin, Iraq , and Kurdish elements, are also constructively involved. . US diplomacy – so misdirected from the outset as being aimed at Assad’s forced removal, with dreadful tragic consequences for the people of Syria of all faiths – has been left in the dust as a helpless spectator.

    I’m not surprised that there was almost no reporting of the substance of what Trump and Putin agreed in Danang Summit, I am sure based on a Russian draft. It does not fit the current anti-Trump and anti-Putin disinformation narrative favoured by the Washington elite at all, so it gets pushed aside and not properly reported in Western MSM . Like many other things, a casualty of the current Russophobia.

    Putin at this ooint actually does not want or need the US to do anything in Syria except to stop the Saudis smuggling arms to Islamist extremists ad their affiliates like the White Helmets. Even if the Us continues to support such spoiler activities, Putin and his effective allies Turkey and Iran ( and the Kurds and Iraq where it suits them) will have effective military responses. Russia says now that the military phase of the Syrian conflict is over. I am not sure that Ross has factored in this degree of confidence – it is a new game now in Syria..

    Of course the Russians will welcome American diplomatic cooperation and will be ready to help save American face by being diplomatically cooperative in return, as Lavrov tried to be with John Kerry under the previous administration 9 though Kerry kept being sandbagged by anti-Russian figures in the Obama administration) . The Russians have immense reserves of diplomatic courtesy and patience. But they will not, to put it bluntly, take any more crap from the Americans in Syria. . That means no m0re contrived false-flag incidents like the alleged Idlib sarin gas attack, no m0re hostile rhetoric against Assad … but I am not sure if Washington is up for this, Russophobe prejudice has bitten so deep there now, and Trump is impotent to take control of Syrian policy whatever he agreed to in Danang, as he is impotent on so much else in American national security policy. It will be down to the generals.

    In a words, Syria is a defeat for US foreign policy – a defeat that for the sake of the Syrian people of all faiths, I welcome. If the US is smart, it will work with Moscow to cover up the extent of the US defeat. But I suspect it will be not so smart.

    Dangerous incidents of close near-misses between Russian and American aircraft in the Black Sea approaching Russian airspace have flared up again. And Russia ostentatiously flew military aircraft right across Eastern Turkey last week – clearly with Turkish permission – almost directly over the former US NATO airbase there – I am not sure if it is still functioning? These are the new realities on the ground.

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