‘Defeating IS takes priority over Assad’ in new Syria plan

Abd Doumany, AFP| A young injured Syrian man looks on at a make-shift hospital in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following air strikes by Syrian government forces on a marketplace on August 16, 2015.

For the first time in two years, Western powers opposed to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad managed to agree at the UN with Russia, a longtime supporter of the regime in Damascus, by focusing on a common enemy: the Islamic State group.


The UN Security Council (UNSC)’s statement on Syria released on August 17 was hailed as a breakthrough by Western diplomats, who praised the world body for speaking with a united voice on the war-torn country.

The UN’s most powerful body urged a “Syrian-led” political transition without formally calling for Assad to step down. Despite deep internal divisions, it backed the plan designed by Staffan De Mistura, the UN mediator who suggested intensive preparatory peace talks across four specialised committees covering political and legal issues; military, security and counterterrorism issues; continuity of public services; and reconstruction and development.

On the surface, the UNSC statement looks like a 50/50 compromise: Russia didn’t veto a text urging a “political transition” in Syria; western powers acknowledged the necessity to fight terror groups opposed to Assad. But according to analysts, a thorough examination of the statement reveals that the UNSC has actually tipped the balance towards Moscow’s initial position on two key elements.

The first of these issues, “fighting terrorism” - which is how Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran have framed the Syrian conflict from the very beginning – has now been put on an equal level with the need for a political transition.

"The problem is that the plan puts equal importance on the transition process and the other points, while for us the transition is the priority," Samir Nashar, a member of the National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition political group, told the AFP news agency.

Who are the terrorists in Syria?

The second key element in the UNSC statement that favours Moscow’s original pro-Damascus position is its condemnation of acts of terror as though they were committed only by anti-Assad forces, namely the al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State group.

The Security Council thus expressed its “gravest” concerns over the terrorist acts perpetrated by the IS group and the al-Nosra front without mentioning similar crimes committed by pro-Assad militias.

The UNSC statement also failed to condemn the Syrian air force’s regular use of barrel bombs which during a recent attack on Sunday killed nearly 100 people in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

The UNSC statement is proof that Western powers seem to have caved in to Moscow’s demand to make the defeat of the IS group the most urgent priority, according to Raghida Dergham, a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for the London-based al-Hayat daily newspaper.

“The Russians’ official position remains the same. Lavrov made it clear on Monday when he said that Moscow would not accept the departure of Assad (…) Because of the losses of the regime, world powers have now agreed on a common denominator - the struggle against terrorism. That’s something the Russians wanted all along”, Dergham told FRANCE 24.

The UNSC statement was released after a flurry of diplomatic activity led by Moscow, which in recent weeks hosted talks with its protégé’s enemies, including Syrian opposition representatives and Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir. On Monday, Russia’s foreign minister Serguei Lavrov also held talks in Moscow with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

This new resolve to address the conflict comes as Assad’s forces are steadily losing ground to radical Islamist groups in Syria.The Damascus regime now reportedly controls less than half the country’s territory, despite military support from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning