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'Syria needs a truce'

Interview: Diana Hodali / db
December 31, 2013

Mideast expert Volker Perthes urges a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict to allow civil society to regroup - and contain the Islamists' growing influence.


DW: If you look at how the Syrian war has developed: Is it a conflict between Islamic denominations?

Volker Perthes: No, it isn't. It is a fight for power in Syria, although regionally, it has now become superimposed to the extent that we can speak of a proxy war. But it's not a war between Sunnis and Shiites - this is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for supremacy in the region.

How did Islamist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria grow so strong?

Basically that's down to the fact that alternatives were lacking or were too weak. After studying all the groups embroiled in the conflict, an astute observer of developments would say that the Syrian conflict is no Islamist revolution. But the uprising is funded by radical Islamists, and groups like al Qaeda, the Nusra Front, and ISIS received a lot of money from private sources in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The moderate, democratic and only partially secular opposition was left more or less isolated by those who pledged support, including the European states.

Should the European states have supplied them with weapons after all?

I am not convinced by arms shipments, because weapons fuel a war even more. If countries like Britain and France advocate lifting the arms embargo - which sends the signal that arms might be forthcoming - and then nothing happens, that leads to unnecessary disappointment. It reinforces the impression that this moderate opposition with its contacts to the West can't provide anything at all. Also, it's not just about weapons; it's about money, equipment, and even wages. Many members of the Free Syrian Army receive no salaries, while those with al Qaeda do.

Man walks along damaged street
Many Syrian cities have been reduced to rubbleImage: Reuters

How can the Islamists' increasing power be countered?

It's time for a ceasefire. As soon as the war takes a break, civil society will return - and they don't want an al Qaeda government. Al Qaeda and its related groups flourish where violence, chaos, and anarchy rule. But when the war comes to a halt, support for them will dwindle, and other powers can emerge.

Who could negotiate such a truce?

The international community is currently preparing the Geneva II Conference, which takes place in January in Montreux with representatives from opposition groups, the regime, and international supporters. It would be too much to hope for peace or an interim government. But maybe the participants at the conference can set in motion a process that could begin with a ceasefire. Al Qaeda won't feel duty-bound to adhere to it, but all the international parties that currently support one or other of the conflict parties must tell their clients: "No more support or arms shipments if you don't agree to a ceasefire."

Do you feel it's realistic that the various international players could agree to a truce?

Russia, the EU, the US, and Turkey are already convinced. It will be more difficult to convince the Assad regime's strongest regional supporter, that is, sections of the Iranian leadership. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is also not yet convinced, because Saudi leaders still believe it is possible to win the war against Assad militarily.

child plays with ammunition
Munitions have become a toyImage: Reuters

With that approach, Saudi Arabia accepts the Islamists' increasing power. Is it in Saudi Arabia's interest to have an Islamist-led country as a neighbor?

Sometimes politicians think short-term: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and we'll support him until the situation changes." The West is not immune to such a way of thinking either. For a long time, we supported groups in Afghanistan that pose a problem today.

Has the fact that the Islamists have gotten stronger played into the hands of the Assad regime? Combatants and even parts of the population who previously sided with the opposition turned to Assad.

He has certainly benefited, but you can even go a step further because he facilitates the development. First by banking on a military solution to the conflict - after all, at the very beginning the insurgents were peaceful. Secondly, the Syrian regime freed jihadists imprisoned in Syrian jails early on.

Is Assad gambling that the opposition will, in the long run, join his army in the fight against al Qaeda?

The Free Syrian Army already maintains tactical alliances with the regular army in the fight against al Qaeda forces.

If the Montreux conference doesn't come up with an agreement on a ceasefire, do you foresee a Western-backed military campaign in Syria after all?

I think that's unlikely because the international community is not interested in getting involved in any substantial way in Syria in the long term. It also wouldn't be a good idea because it could lead to a situation similar to that in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Targeted US air attacks on bases held by the regime and al Qaeda are a possibility, but I don't see an operation that involves ground troops.

Volker Perthes is a Mideast expert and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

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