The regime of Bashar al-Assad is still strong, and the Western idea of toppling it has proven to be an illusion, according to German Middle East expert Michael Lüders. There are no easy solutions in sight, he told DW.
DW: After the negotiations in Vienna, there is now a road map framework for Syria. It envisages the formation of a transitional government and elections under UN supervision. Has a solution to the conflict thus become more realistic?
Michael Lüders: This meeting in Vienna was a first step in the right direction, because for the first time all foreign parties involved in the war in Syria met at the same table, with the exception of the various warring groups in Syria itself, of course. It was an important meeting, and it will continue two weeks from now. Nevertheless, the war will go on. It will continue to destroy the country. There are no easy solutions in sight. Syria as a central state, as we have known it over decades, has ceased to exist. “Islamic State” has been able to establish a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, and it will be a very serious challenge for Western countries and Russia plus Iran and Saudi Arabia to do away with this caliphate, along with the threat posed by "Islamic State." So, there is still a long way to go, but the importance of this meeting in Vienna was really its symbolic value: the fact that all the parties met for the first time.
The sticking point is the future of Bashar al-Assad, and whether he stays in power. What sort of solution would be acceptable to all parties?
There are two different sides in this civil war, which is also a war waged by outside powers. The Western powers - the Americans, the Europeans, Turkey and the Gulf States - want to see the regime of Bashar al-Assad removed. They want to see a new regime in place in Damascus composed of Sunnis, who are the majority population, and, of course, this new Sunni government would then mean an end to the privileged relations Syria has so far enjoyed with Shiite Iran and with Russia. And for that very reason, neither Russia nor Iran, nor China for that matter, want to see this regime removed.
The future of Bashar al-Assad is not really important from the point of view of Russia and Iran. They don't care about him as a person. Ultimately, he will probably have to go into exile to Russia or elsewhere. But the decisive question is whether the West accepts that its own perception, the belief that it would be possible to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has been proven to be an illusion. It is not possible to topple this regime; it is still strong. Many Syrians, especially religious minorities, continue to support him, not out of love, but out of fear of what might happen after the potential downfall of this regime. That would result in an onslaught by "Islamic State" and possibly their seizing power in Damascus, and religious minorities are, of course, very much afraid of this.
Among the key points in Vienna are the demands that Syria should not be divided and that it should remain secular. How realistic is this, considering the advanced stage of fragmentation of the country?
I am afraid to say that there is a lot of wishful thinking involved here, because Syria as a central state has ceased to exist. The regime of Bashar al-Assad controls approximately 30 percent of Syrian territory, the rest having fallen prey to "Islamic State," the Nusra Front, which is the al Qaeda offshoot in Syria, and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. It does not appear very likely that the Syrian army will be able to reconquer those parts of Syria that have been lost along the Turkish and the Iraqi border. The regime itself will focus on the core territory of Syria, but the future of the rest of the country is really very open; nobody knows what is going to happen, or whether it will be possible to beat "Islamic State" militarily. So far there is no indication that this will happen, and the situation both in Syria and Iraq will continue to be very unstable for years to come.
In addition to the peace talks, the White House announced that the US would send special forces to Syria. Is that evidence of a further militarization of the conflict?
In a way, yes. The Americans have realized that their first option - no boots on the ground - is not very realistic. If the Americans want to sincerely confront "Islamic State," they will have to put boots on the ground. But I think the main reason for this American announcement now - that troops will be sent, even if it is only happening in small numbers - the main reason for this declaration is really the fact that the Russians are so present in Syria now; they have dispatched more than 3,000 soldiers to Syria. The Americans don't simply want to accept this. They also want to show that they are still there, that they are engaged, and that they will not leave Syria to the interest of Russia only. There is still a potential confrontation in the air between the Russia and the United States in Syria, and that is what makes this conflict so dangerous.
Michael Lüders is a political scientist, Islamic studies scholar, author and journalist who has worked in the Middle East for many years. Lüders is also deputy chairman of the German Orient-Foundation, as well as chairman of the German-Arab association.