Over the past four months, intensive airstrikes by Russia have significantly stabilized the situation in the most vulnerable areas. The threat of the fall of the Syrian regime and the imminent rise to power of Islamic militants has been removed.
After a long and grueling preparatory marathon, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General Staffan De Mistura set a date for Geneva talks between the Syrian government and various opposition groups in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254. No one could decline the invitations he sent out without losing their political face. However, two days after their official opening, the proxy talks involving an international mediator were suspended until February 25. Staffan de Mistura acknowledged the absence of any progress and said more work needs to be done, even though this delay, he said, cannot be considered a failure.
The short-lived Geneva-2 talks held two years ago failed miserably. The interpretation of the key provisions of the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 became the proverbial devil in the details. Issues, such as fighting terrorism and arrangements on the specifics of the transition period, that is, sharing authority, were included in this document, which was formally adopted by all the parties except the radical jihadist-wing opposition.
What has changed since then? How do the current Syrian talks differ from the previous ones, let alone the fact that they will use an intermediary during the initial phase? Is there any chance for success or will the bet on military resolution gain the upper hand again?
Of course, mutual bitterness and war-minded thinking still exist. As hostilities escalated, the spiral of violence gained momentum and became increasingly uncontrollable. Most importantly, it began to take on killer dynamics of its own. The war in Syria has gone beyond being a regional, Sunni-Shia conflict and now has become a real threat to global security.
As follows from the initial comments, the parties arrived in Geneva with similar demands and immediately launched a propaganda war in order to absolve themselves in advance of any responsibility for possible failure. The Syrian opposition staged a political show of coming to Geneva, including numerous nighttime meetings in Riyadh, all sorts of preconditions, boycott threats, upfront requests for guarantees, and much more.
However, one can’t help but noticing that the pressure toward having this drawn-out crisis resolved through political means has been lately increasing. The military alignment of forces in Syria and the global community's attitudes have changed dramatically. ISIS and its atrocities, a sprawling humanitarian disaster, the collapse of the national statehood and devastation in Syria, and the migration flow to Europe have taken on a dimension that is completely unacceptable for modern civilization. Despite their current crisis in bilateral relations, Russia and the United States were the first to feel the need for decisive actions to reverse this dangerous situation fraught with unpredictable consequences. The original differences regarding the priorities and the institutional and legal framework of an anti-terrorist campaign, whether joint or separate, were being tackled in a pragmatic manner. Gradually, Moscow and Washington agreed on the need to increase pressure on the Syrian sides in order to force them back to the negotiating table. Before doing so, they had to decide which armed opposition groups were cooperative and which should be blacklisted as terrorist organizations. Having done so, the Syrians could then join efforts in fighting international terrorism in Syria and Iraq.
Bold, albeit risky, Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian bloodbath on the side of the government troops has largely contributed to the development of such an approach, though it still needs to be reinforced. Over the past four months, intensive airstrikes by Russia have significantly stabilized the situation in the most vulnerable areas and made it possible to expand the control zone outside Damascus, mostly in densely populated areas around Latakia, Aleppo and Homs, and in southern Syria. The threat of the fall of the Syrian regime and the imminent rise to power of Islamic militants has been removed. For its part, the United States was forced to intensify its air strikes against the Islamic State and began to make adjustments to its anti-terrorist strategy.
As a result of Russian-American contacts at the highest level, including regular contacts between Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry, the sides have expanded mutual understanding of the parallel steps they need to take in order to advance their agenda. An American political analyst in the know told me that Russia and the United States have far more in common than the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Qatar. These countries are the regional actors who provide the opposition, including terrorist groups, with weapons, financial aid and political support.
Expert opinions about the two coalitions, the US-Sunni and the Russian-Shia, do not accurately reflect the actual state of affairs. Chaotic developments in the Middle East have created a one-of-a-kind political situation. Major global powers show signs of discomfort amid a situation where regional actors, in their medieval rivalries, pursue their own interests making Russia and the United States hostages to their selfish interests and playing them against each other. In recent years, US relations with its Middle Eastern allies, including NATO member Turkey, have occasionally had to face tough stress tests.
Russia and the United States share fundamental approaches toward Syrian settlement in many areas. They both agree that there may be no military solution to the conflict and that the Islamic State group must be destroyed as a common threat. The Syrians, with international assistance, must come to an agreement with regard to the political system in their country. Such agreements and the eradication of international terrorism are inextricably linked. Russia and the United States are also in favor of preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and carrying out domestic reforms, which should keep the state institutions intact. Put differently, it’s not about a regime change, as was the case in Iraq and Libya, but about reforming it based on national reconciliation.
There’s another important feature of this new attempt to bring the conflicting parties to a compromise. The peacekeeping efforts are now based on an international legal framework, which Russia has been advocating for quite a while now. This includes primarily joint statements on the results of multilateral meetings in Vienna on October 30 and November 14, which were enshrined in the December 18 UNSC Resolution 2254. These documents contain not only guidelines, which should be the basis for the settlement and the future structure of the Syrian state, but also a detailed roadmap for the transition period with time benchmarks for each stage, such as forming a transitional authority with executive powers, drafting a new constitution and holding free elections with the participation of international observers. Such an instrument of political influence was not available to Staffan de Mistura’s predecessor, or the international community in general. Influential regional countries, such as Iran, without which the settlement would not be feasible, are now participating in this process as part of the International Syria Support Group.
Realistically assessing the situation in Syria and around it, it is important to understand that mere availability of the prerequisites for progress does not lend any hope. Many roadblocks lie ahead, which may end this still fragile mechanism. So far, despite the announced pause, which will allegedly be used to ponder the situation, the negotiation process continues unabated. Already at the outset, there were difficulties with forming a single delegation from the motley opposition, which includes secular democratic forces and a mostly Islamist platform put together in Riyadh under the name of High Negotiations Committee. Due to Turkey’s opposition, the participation of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party is left hanging in the balance, even though its armed self-defense units have contributed greatly to fighting ISIS, and enjoy international support. In addition, the negotiation process was nearly thwarted by the High Negotiations Committee putting forward preconditions for immediate compliance with paragraphs 12 and 13 of UNSC Resolution 2254 about delivering humanitarian aid to besieged areas, stopping airstrikes against civilians and releasing prisoners. These requirements are actually included in the resolution, but they are part of confidence-building measures, which Staffan de Mistura planned to discuss at the first meeting as prerequisites for a ceasefire.
For its part, the government delegation presented the matter as if it was only a preparatory stage for opening the intra-Syrian dialogue, and the routine procedural work was still underway. The government linked progress, including in matters related to ceasefire, to excluding terrorists from the negotiations process. However, their criteria as to who should be considered terrorist and who shouldn’t, were vague to the point where coping with differences based on real understanding of the situation on the military field was impossible. Thus, after the first few days of the Geneva talks, none of the Syrian sides was willing to reach a compromise as Russia and the United States - the two main driving forces behind the Geneva process - want them to. Neither the government, nor the opposition, especially its most powerful Islamist wing, has come to the realization that military victory is impossible. Several Arab military experts have suggested that the armed opposition controlled by Saudi Arabia and, particularly, Turkey, which still entertains plans to build buffer zones on the border with Syria, is going to stall until the US presidential elections take place hoping for a conservative candidate to win. Previous experience with this kind of conflict, when no one seems to able to win, shows that the political settlement may help achieve much, but not all that each party wants to.
In these circumstances, Russia and the United States have a special role to play. Only they, if they act in a coordinated manner, or at least in parallel, are in a position to influence the sides of the talks, thus maintaining the continuity of the negotiation process, even though the whole thing looked like a non-starter initially. To do so, it is important to keep the Syrian sides disillusioned about the unlimited support of their allies.