The US-Russia Brokered Ceasefire in South-Western Syria – Professor Habib Malik, Lebanese American University, Beirut, 10 July 2017
The US-Russia Brokered Ceasefire in South-Western Syria
Professor Habib Malik
Lebanese American University, Beirut
George Chr. Pelaghias (G.Chr.P): I’m here today with Professor Habib Malik from the Department of History of the Lebanese American University. Professor Malik, welcome.
Professor Habib Malik (H.M.): Thank You.
G.Chr.P.: A ceasefire covering the southwestern part of Syria recently came into force after having been brokered by the US and Russia during the G20 talks last Friday, July 7th. What is your comment on this?
H.M.: Well, I think this ceasefire in southwestern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia is a very good thing and indeed a promising start to tackle the remainder of the thorny Syria crisis. That is a sensitive area in southwest Syria because any deterioration of the fighting there could conceivably drag Israel into the picture because it’s very close to the Golan Heights. It involves three important towns: Daraa, Sweida and Quneitra. Daraa is a predominantly Sunni town where the Syrian civil war actually started and Quneitra is right up against the Golan Heights. So, if this ceasefire manages to, in a sense, stop possible future Iranian and Hezbollah adventurism in that area, then it would be good, because it would prevent a quick slide into a conflagration with Israel that would drag Israel in, and possibly a spillover with catastrophic consequences to Jordan and Lebanon. So yes, this is an important step and it also comes, I think, as a prelude to another agreement between the United States and Russia, and that is over safe zones in Syria for the eventual repatriation of refugees. That, I think, is also an important next step after consolidating the ceasefire. And, of course, there seems to be a US-Russian agreement broadly on fighting ISIS, more specifically in the Raqqa area, which is the ISIS capital in Syria. All of these are promising developments and so we all hope that the ceasefire will actually hold.
G.Chr.P.: Moving from Syria to Iraq, Prime Minister al-Abadi recently announced victory over the Islamic State in the city of Mosul. In your opinion, do you see that there could potentially be a spread of ISIS fighters west towards Syria, and perhaps even Lebanon?
H.M.: Yes, that is always a possibility. Now, the Iraqis have declared victory in Mosul. There are still a few remaining pockets of diehard ISIS fighters there. But even if the last ISIS fighter is eliminated from Iraq, that doesn’t end ISIS as a potent ideology and radicalizing influence over impressionable young Sunni youth. That is the long-term problem that the world faces as far as this form of extremist terrorism is concerned. But obviously ISIS has been dealt a very severe blow in Iraq. ISIS is weakened considerably in Syria and will continue to be weakened there. The possibility of ISIS fighters spilling over from Iraq into Syria and eventually into Lebanon is definitely a disturbing prospect. The good news is that the Lebanese army is very vigilant, especially on the eastern borders of Lebanon with Syria, and has managed to foil a number of ISIS plots and attacks. So that is somewhat reassuring. Plus the fact that the Sunni Lebanese community is not sympathetic to ISIS, they are not a cradling community for this form of radicalism. Only some of the Syrian refugee camps and Palestinian camps might be able to house some of these fighters, but that would be on the level of a nuisance, not an existential threat
as far as Lebanon is concerned. The real problem right now is that the Lebanese government is refusing to talk to the Syrian government directly about repatriating some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Now, that we have an agreement between the two big powers over ceasefire in southwest Syria, the next step would be the safe zones and no-fly zones which would open the door for repatriation of refugees. But as long as the Lebanese government is not talking to the Syrian government, that’s very bad and not a good omen. And so the government in Beirut needs to get its act together and start the process of direct negotiations with Syria to repatriate some of these refugees.
G.Chr.P.: Professor Malik, as always, thank you very much for participating in our discussions and providing your valuable input. We look forward to having you back again.
H.M.: Thank you to Erpic.