"It's time for a ceasefire"

Middle East expert Volker Perthes is calling for a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict to allow civil society to recover, which could in turn curb the growing influence of the Islamists. Diana Hodali spoke to him

Looking at the way the Syrian war has developed, is this a conflict between Islamic denominations?

Volker Perthes: No, it isn't. It is a fight for power in Syria. However, regional powers have become so involved that we can speak of a proxy war. But even that is not a war between Sunnis and Shias; it is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are fighting 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?

Perthes: Basically because alternatives were either lacking or were too weak. After studying all the groups embroiled in the conflict, one astute observer of developments came to the conclusion that the Syrian conflict is no Islamist revolution. That being said, the uprising is funded by radical Islamists.

For example, groups like al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front and ISIS have 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.

So you think European states should have supplied weapons after all?

Perthes: I am not convinced by arms shipments, because weapons add fuel to the flames of war. If, however, countries like Britain and France advocate lifting the arms embargo at EU level – which sends out the signal that arms might be forthcoming – and then nothing happens, that leads to unnecessary disappointment. What’s more, 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 are not paid wages, while those with al-Qaeda are.

A man walks down a ruined street in Deir al-Zor (photo: Reuters)
Scenes of inconceivable destruction in Deir al-Zor: after three years of fighting, there is no let-up in the ferocity of the Syrian conflict. Cities across the country have been reduced to rubble, and hundreds of thousands have fled

How can the Islamists' increasing power be curbed?

Perthes: It's time for a ceasefire. As soon as there is a break from war, civil society will recover. And civil society doesn't want an al-Qaeda government. Al-Qaeda and its related groups flourish where violence, chaos and anarchy rule. But when there is a break in the war, support for them will dwindle, and other forces can emerge.

Who could negotiate such a ceasefire?

Perthes: 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 – and this brings me back to your question – all the international parties that currently support one or more of the warring factions must tell their clients: "No more support or arms shipments unless you agree to a ceasefire."

Do you think it possible that the various international players could agree to a ceasefire?

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

In other words, Saudi Arabia is willing to accept an increase in the Islamists' power. Is it in Saudi Arabia's interest to have an Islamist-led country as a neighbour?

Perthes: 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 this way of thinking either. For a long time, we supported groups in Afghanistan that now pose a problem today.

A Syrian child plays with ammunition (photo: Reuters)
Volker Perthes feels that international parties that currently support one or more of the warring factions in the Syrian conflict could be instrumental in bringing about a ceasefire by telling their allies that they will halt support for them if they do not agree to a ceasefire

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

Perthes: It certainly did play into his hands, but you can even go a step further because he actually facilitated the development. Firstly 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 at a very early stage.

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

Perthes: 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?

Perthes: 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 wouldn't be a good idea anyway 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.

Interview conducted by Diana Hodali

© DW 2013

Editor: Ben Knight/DW.de, Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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