Geneva Talks III: Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?
*Source: Daily Sabah ©
Geneva Talks III:
Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?
UN led Geneva III negotiations aimed at solving the Syrian conflict appears to have taken off despite earlier doubts. The first UN attempt after the Security Council resolution 2254 to start the talks was suspended when opposition threatened to leave the talks due to the continued Russian bombings. Then another attempt by the UN Syrian Representative De Mistura was successful and the first round took place between …. and ……. And the second round is scheduled to start on…….Whether Geneva III negotiations will in the end lead to a compromise solution or break down like all previous UN attempts remains to be seen.
The main reason behind the continuation of the ceasefire and the negotiations so far is that this is the first US-Russian push for a ceasefire and negotiations. It was this strong push which allowed the UN representative de Mistura to bring the parties together, while this had proved impossible to do so until then. So far there has not been any direct talks between the parties in Geneva, but instead a sort of proximity talks, where Mistura is talking to each party separately until a common basis could be built up. It is hoped that after such a common basis emerges it will be possible for de Mistura to bring the parties to face to face talks to reach a compromise.
The question to ask is what brought the US and Russia to a broad strategic understanding on Syria which opened the way for a joint effort to help the UN initiative. While the two global powers maintained their differences, they had agreed on the need for a solution in the conflict. They saw no benefit from the continuation of the conflict. The proximity talks were getting out of control creating major problems for both powers. The European Union was cracking under the refugee pressure from Syria and the conflict was giving signs of spreading to other countries in the region such as Iraq and the Gulf which risked a wider US Russian conflict.
Secondly both powers at that stage were feeling strong enough to impose a solution on their side in Syria. Russian air support which saved Assad showed him that he depends on Russia for survival. The moderate opposition groups also saw that without US support they could not win and get a solution at the table which could protect their interests. So both parties saw that without their great power backers, neither side could either continue the conflict for long or reach a diplomatic solution which would protect their interests.
Thirdly asymmetric importance attached by the US and Russia to Syria made such a broad understanding possible. While Russia attached top priority to Syria where she had military bases, Obama administration did not see Syria as strategically carrying top priority. Instead Obama thought it important to keep Russia as a partner in dealing with world issues in particular to fight against ISIL/DAESH and get a nuclear deal with Iran. This led Obama to avoid attacks on Assad, even turn a green light on for the Russian intervention which saved Assad and shifted the balance of power on the ground in favor of Assad. But once Russia entered Syria she kept bombing the moderate opposition much more that in bombed ISIL/DAESH trying to eliminate the moderate opposition and leave only Assad and the ISIL/DAESH in the ring. Russian thinking is that by leaving these two sides the West would chose Assad rather than the radical terrorist groups. But despite this the Russian-US understanding on Syria continued.
This US- Russian understanding led to a joint effort by the two to push for a Security Council resolution on a comprehensive solution in Syria. Thus the Security Council resolution 2254 was passed. Although it left many issues unclear and some others untouched, it nevertheless was aimed at a comprehensive solution and remains the basis of the subsequent resolutions or decisions on Syria. The two countries also pushed for a cessation of hostilities which was backed by another UN Security Council resolution 2268. Consequently Geneva III negotiations began.
The main issues which could derail the Geneva III negotiations need to be looked at here. Firstly the future of Assad is a critical issue which could make or break the talks. Assad might insist on remaining in power beyond the 18 month envisaged in the Resolution 2254. This is particularly so since he has been strengthened militarily by the Russian support and air attacks. Secondly the establishment of a non-sectarian administration in Syria’ agreed earlier is likely to prove quite difficult since Assad administration is a sectarian administration based on the dominance of the minority Shiite groups over the majority Sunnis. Will Assad or the Alewites or even Russia let this system change which would increase the weight of the Sunnis in the system? Thirdly regional rivalries such as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could make it quite difficult to reach a compromise agreement. Nuclear deal with Iran isolated Saudi Arabia and the friendly Gulf countries that are feeling vulnerable and see Iran as an expansionist power. In the same way, if the interests and worries of other regional powers are not taken into account in a compromise solution, this could lead to a regional tension and crises later. Some see that on the Assad side a deal might upset the Iranians and on the Western side it might create problems with Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Fourthly PYD and some allied groups approved a document that declares a federal system in the North of the country. This is likely to be a major problem because all outside stakeholder states except Russia reject this strongly.
In conclusion it could be said that some light at the end of a long tunnel seems to be a better description of the situation than a mere mirage in the desert. On the “light” side, there is a ceasefire, which already saved thousands of lives, negotiations, the backing of the two world powers and the huge cost of returning to the fighting again. On the “mirage” side the future of Assad, the regional rivalries, the establishment of a non-sectarian administration, and above all the military imbalance and the continuing Russian-Assad push to take the critical city of Aleppo risks every progress made so far. These can risk every positive step taken so far and turn them into a mirage. I think the scales are slightly heavier on the ‘light’ side at present and the hope is that the negotiations, while being difficult will continue. The longer the negotiations continue on and off, the light will get brighter and the negotiations will go in the direction of partial solutions in various places over time which could be linked up to create a Syrian wide solution. This looks the most promising and realistic path forward.
Whether the Geneva III talks, which began on 9 March 2016 will put the nearly five-year-old Syrian conflict on to a diplomatic track for a solution is a critical question. It came after the US-Russian agreed cessation of hostilities in Syria which was backed by the Security Council resolution 2268 and came into force on 27 February 2016. The first attempt to get the parties start the talks after the critical 2254 resolution was suspended by the United Nations special envoy for Syria Mr. Steffan de Mistura on March 3, 2016. The reason was the threat by the opposition to leave the talks due to the continuation of the attacks by Russian and Assad forces. The next attempt for negotiations was successful which is now completed. The date for the next round will become clear later.
The Council Resolution 2268 backing the cessation of hostilities demanded that all parties involved fulfill their commitments. It also urged all Member States, especially ISSG (International Syrian Support Group) members – the European Union, the Arab League, the United Nations, and 17 countries, including the United States and Russia, who have been trying to push forward for several months – to pressure the parties to make sure that they fulfill their commitments and support efforts “to create conditions for a durable and lasting ceasefire.”
The Resolution also demanded the “full and immediate” implementation of the Council Resolution 2254 (2015), passed on December 18, 2015. This was the first Council resolution which focused on a comprehensive solution in Syria and set the framework for diplomatic negotiations. It had set out a roadmap to end the war in Syria: a national ceasefire, UN-mediated political talks and a two-year period to achieve a political transition. Other Council resolutions passed on Syria until then have dealt mainly with the humanitarian situation and the question of chemical weapons.
The first attempt to find a solution in Syria began in late 2011 when the Arab League launched two initiatives which failed. Then in January 2012 and in November 2013 Russia tried to get the Syrian government and the opposition talking in Moscow without much success. After that a joint effort by the United Nations and the Arab League coordinated by Kofi Annan raised hopes for a sort while. In January and February 2014, the Geneva II Talks on Syria took place, which was organized by the then UN Envoy to Syria Mr. Lahdar Brahimi which again failed to take off. On 30 October 2015, further talks started in Vienna involving officials from the US, the EU, Russia, China and various regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and, for the first time, Iran. Inclusion of Iran in the talks completed the missing link to get all the major outside actors involved in the negotiations.
The Syrian Conflict and the Parties
More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in this brutal conflict. Eleven million have been made homeless; 4.5 five million people left Syria became refugees living in neighbouring countries and about one million refugees entered Europe living in very difficult conditions. In addition the country is totally destroyed (BBC news 2016).
As Assad used brutal methods to suppress the demonstrations which began in 2011, the reaction grew and the situation escalated to a widespread uprising against Assad. This soon turned into a sectarian fight in a country where Alawite-led government of President Assad has been dominating the political system where majority is Sunni, for decades. Escalation to a full scale civil war followed, which then turned into a proxy war even risking a direct major power Russian-US confrontation.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule continue to fight in a complex war which destroyed the country. At present the Syrian conflict has turned into a complex problem where the Syrian Government Regime under President Bashar Al-Assad is supported by the Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Russians. The opposition/Rebels are made up of Syrian National Coalition, including a break-away portion of the Syrian Army made up of 70-100 separate groups, each with separate leadership, many of whom frequently fight amongst themselves. Lastly there is also a Kurdish element in Syria, PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party) and its armed wing YPG (The People’s Protection Units / Popular Protection Units). The Syrian National Coalition is supported by the Western powers but in particular the US, and regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While the Western powers support YPG Turkey opposes strongly seeing it as the extension of the PKK terrorist organization in Turkey. Among the opposition to Assad, there is also the most feared radical terrorist group ISIS/DAESH (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) whose brutal tactics outraged the world. Also there are the Jihadists, including the al-Nusra Front (or al-Qaeda in Syria).
Negotiations in Syria are conducted between the representatives of the Syrian Ba’athist government and Syrian Opposition, while the Western-backed Kurdish forces have stayed out of the negotiations framework. Also the radical opposition terrorist groups Salafist forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/DAESH) have not engaged in any contacts on peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Major Force Behind Geneva III Negotiations:
US-Russian Joint Push for a Ceasefire and Negotiations
Due to the disagreements between the Security Council permanent members on Syria, the Council has not been effective in the Syrian conflict until 2015. Then the US and Russia began to come to a broad understanding on Syria which led them push for negotiations.
Clearly one reason is that the USA and Russia saw that they have nothing to gain from further conflict and are now able to impose a solution on the parties. They have reached a strategic understanding behind closed doors on Syria and decided to push jointly for a ceasefire and negotiations. The asymmetric strategic value attached to Syria by the two powers made it easier to reach a broad understanding. Putin attached top priority to Syria where Russia had the only two military bases in the Mediterranean region. Russia continued to support Assad right from the beginning and made this clear. The US, on the other hand, did not see Syria as strategically very important to justify employing the kind of military -economic resources to the region to match Russia. Instead, the US saw Russian partnership in international issues and a nuclear deal with Iran as more important than Syria. Therefore, the US, right from the beginning, wanted to avoid engaging in a military operation in Syria against Assad in order not to worsen relations with Russia, which she saw as a partner in dealing with the world issues. Washington also attached top priority to nuclear issue with Iran and wanted to keep Russia on board but avoid pressuring and/or overthrowing Assad to give ammunition to the hardliners in Iran against the liberal Rohani, who wanted a nuclear deal (Smith 2015).
The US even went as far as assuring Russia publicly that she would not enter a proxy war with Russia in effect giving her a carte blanche on Syria (Hof 2015). This will probably go down in history as a “recipe for a guaranteed failure in diplomacy” book written by Obama to be studied by future generations of international relations students worldwide.
Secondly, Russia and the US now see that they could impose a solution on the parties in Syria as they became more dependent on them. Assad forces were saved from collapse by the Russian intervention and supply of huge amounts of weapons. Assad knows that he cannot continue without Russian support and if he tries to go it alone he might lose Russian support and even if his regime survives, might end up being tried in international courts for war crimes (Glass 2016). This does not mean that he will follow the Moscow line entirely and will not take risks but the message from Moscow is there.
On the side of the pro-western groups, there is a feeling that they are already outgunned and weakened substantially and has little room for maneuver and need the US support. They do not have the military power to continue fighting for long and fear the resumption of the Russian air attacks. The alternative, without US support, might be a defeat. Just before the cessation of hostilities Assad-Russian-Iranian push towards the critical Aleppo city made progress and almost encircled the city. US did not oppose these attacks strongly and left Assad gain a major advantage. Opposition fears that if the talks break down Russian-Assad forces could attempt to take the city and change the balance of power in the entire country.
While the support of the regional powers for the two sides has been important, it has not been enough to bring victory. Despite Iranian support Assad came to the brink of collapse and was saved by the Russians. The moderate opposition, on the other hand, despite the support of regional allies came to the brink of collapse and could not get any final results and needs the US support. So both sides in the Syrian conflict are under heavy pressure to come to an agreement and need the big power ally.
Thirdly, the proxy war between the two sides was getting out of control and giving signs of spilling over and creating bigger problems for Russia and the US. The refugee crises from the conflict is now threatening to derail the European project. European states could not agree on a common project on the refugee issue. Who will make decisions on the issue and how many refugees will Europe and the individual countries will take divided the members seriously. The US does not want this problem get out of control and threaten its European allies.
On the other hand, Russian economy is in real trouble due to low oil prices, collapse of the rubble and the western sanctions. Putin does not want to risk a wider and a longer conflict and get into a quagmire like Afghanistan which would worsen the already fragile Russian economy further.
Both powers also know that Syria is in ruins and after a peace agreement the country will need tens of billions of dollars to even stabilize and function and trillions for reconstruction over many decades. Some speculate that what appears to be the Russian military advantage might lead to a pro-Russian solution but when it comes to supporting reconstruction afterwards, the advantage will inevitably shift in favor of the Western countries.
UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015 and the Major Points of Disagreement between the Parties
The UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) calls on member states to fight ISIL/DAESH and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups and all other groups and individuals, terrorists associated with it. It further calls on the members to fight the other terrorists groups as may be agreed by the ISSG (international Syrian support group) and leave no safe heavens to the terrorists in Syria. Also it makes clear that ceasefire will exclude the fight against these terrorists groups which means that fighting will continue in many places. Finally, it calls for drafting of a constitution and support for the free and fair elections to be held within 18 months.
The biggest point of disagreement is the future of Assad. This is not talked about in the UN Resolution 2254 and reflects a clear disagreement between the Western and the Russian sides. This can make or break the negotiations. All major Western powers including the USA, France, Britain, Turkey and also the Free Syrian Army, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not accept the continuation of Assad beyond the transition period. For them accepting Assad to continue during the transition is already a major concession that they could accept only with major difficulty. While Obama administration was strongly calling for his departure in the past, today Washington is ready to accept the continuation of Assad at least during the transition period.
Russia insists that only Syrians can decide who will be the next president of the country, in effect trying to keep him in power as long as possible. Some argue that Russia will accept the departure of Assad only after a new government is formed and Russia secures the continuation of her old and newly established military bases in the country. By pulling back some of her forces from Syria immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Russia tried to gain diplomatic points but also force Assad to make concessions and accept departure after a certain time in the negotiations. If Assad does not make concessions and push for maximal demands, Russia may withdraw her support and Assad might face the prospect of a fall and international criminal court for war crimes.
The other point is that the ceasefire does not include attacks on the terrorist groups and individuals who mean that during the 18 months Assad will remain in power, the USA led coalition, Russian and Assad-Hezbollah-Iranian forces will continue attacking El-Nusra and ISIS/DAESH and other groups considered as terrorist. But what happens if Assad refuses to go after these terrorist groups are weakened or eliminated in 18 months? Already Russian backed Assad forces got the strategic town of Palmira, from ISIL/DAESH which has an airport and the ruins of the 2000 year old city scoring a propaganda point. Assad already talked of taking over the whole of Syria.
So far Assad shows no sign of accepting a proposed national unity government and rejected even a ‘transitional ruling body with full powers’ the main opposition demands. He added “The transition period must be under the current constitution, and we will move on to the new constitution after the Syrian people vote for it” Assad said 5(Karam, 2016).
But major powers agreed on the transitional body with full powers at a Geneva Conference in June 2012 which remains the basis of UN-mediated talks which are scheduled to resume in April 2016. Whether Assad is defying international community rejecting the basis of talks with the full support of Russia or acting in defiance of Russian desires is a critical question. In the coming days this will be clear and will have a major impact on the negotiations 6 (Hof, 2016).
The stress on non-sectarian administration in Syria is also important in the resolution. This is particularly so considering that the Assad administration is itself a sectarian administration where the small Alewite community has been ruling the majority Sunni population for decades. A non-sectarian administration would mean that the majority Sunni population would get a much stronger representation in the running of the country and Alewites will lose their former dominance that they have been enjoying until now. One question will be whether Assad and the dominant Alawite community around him will accept such a major change. Russia may also see the increasing weight of the Sunnis in the political system as something which could put the future of the Russian bases at risk. While a compromise might be possible, it will be difficult.
The question of who will participate in the elections does not have a clear answer. While the main terrorist groups, such as ISIL-DAESH as well as El Nusra will be excluded, other groups may also be kept out in the future. It is clear that the parties may disagree on the groups to be excluded from the process that may be put forward during the negotiations. Russian side wants to include some groups that are Assad allies within the opposition group attempting to dilute the opposition and weaken them in the negotiations. Russia has been arguing right from the beginning that there is no moderate opposition but merely anti Assad opposition that are terrorists. This is also likely to create major problems in the negotiations.
Apart from all these the Syrian peace process, might still be derailed by regional rivalries. Rising Iranian-Saudi rivalry reignited by the execution of a Shia cleric by the Saudis and the burning of some Saudi diplomatic mission buildings in Iran recently, risks a wider conflict which could derail the Syrian peace process. Iran claims to represent the Shia world and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Islam and they have been waging proxy wars in Lebanon, Yemen and more intensely in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran will be sitting at the table in the negotiations. Both leaderships also use the conflict in Syria and in other places to strengthen their popularity at home which makes the issue more complicated. Therefore, rising tension between Tehran and Riyadh which now has turned into a conflict between Tehran and the Arabs could derail the negotiations (Miller and Brodsky, 2016).
Also the lack of military balance on the ground will have a major effect on the negotiations. If the opposition breaks the ceasefire, Assad forces backed up by the Russians could use propaganda to prove the world that the opposition could not be trusted and does not want peace and justify a full scale counterattack on the outgunned and weakened opposition. But if the opposite was the case and Assad forces or Russia breaks the ceasefire, it is not clear how they will be punished (Kanat, 2016). This is likely to be a major advantage for the Assad side. It will be tempting for Russians, if the opposition does not make the critical concessions, to try to raise tension and bring military pressure on the opposition to get what it wants at the table. Already reports are coming in that Russian- Assad forces are trying to take Aleppo the critical city which could change the balance of power entirely in Syria.
It must be mentioned, however, that John Kerry warned Russia earlier that if these talks fail then Syria could be partitioned (Wintour 2016). How seriously this will be taken, given the past record of the Obama administration, is not clear.
A recent development is also worrying for the talks. PYD and some allied groups approved a document that declares a federal system in the North of the country (Al Jazerra 2016). While the US, Turkey, the UN and Assad opposed it, some argue that in the plan B of the US, a federal solution would be on the cards. So PYD and its supporters, lobbying hard for it might try to obstruct the negotiations in order to get support for a federal solution in Syria.
Finally, Russia and the US will need to deal not only with the parties in Syria but also with their own regional allies too. If the genuine interests and particularly the security interests of these regional actors are ignored, then a compromise agreement to be reached will still face serious problems.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel or are we seeing a mirage in the desert? On the “light” side, there is a ceasefire, which already saved thousands of lives, and the huge cost of returning to the fighting again. Negotiating table has been set up and the UN is at work backed up by the two major world powers. On the side which could create a mirage, we can count the future of Assad, the regional rivalries, the establishment of a non-sectarian administration, push for a federal solution and above all the military imbalance on the ground. Continuing Russian- Assad push to take the critical city of Aleppo in particular is a very negative development. These factors can risk every positive step taken so far and turn them into a mirage.
In conclusion it could be said that some light at the end of a long tunnel seems to be a better description of the situation than a mere mirage in the desert. I think the scales are slightly heavier on the ‘light’ side at present and the hope is that the negotiations, while being difficult will continue. US-Russian push still continues and the parties are under serious pressure to negotiate. Considering the complexity of the conflict, a more realistic expectation would be small steps forward, stops and resumptions going in the direction of partial solutions in various places over time which could be linked up to create a Syrian wide solution. This looks the most promising and realistic path forward.
Şakir Alemdar, PhD Candidate, Near East University, Nicosia
Please cite this publication as follows:
Alemdar, Ş. (May, 2016), “Geneva Talks III: Light at The End Of The Tunnel or a Mirage in The Syrian Desert?”, Vol. V, Issue 5, pp.6 – 18, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=11638)
BBC news (2016 ) “Syria: The story of the conflict” 11 March
Hof, F. C. (2016) “Assad: Total Defiance” Atlantic Council, 4 April.
Hof, F. C. (2015), “Syria: Taking the Initiative, Acquiring some Leverage”. Real Clear Defense, 5 October.
Glass, Charles. (2016), “Russia and the US now have the power to impose peace in Syria” The Guardian, 13 March.
Kanat, K. B. (2016) “Cessation of hostilities in Syria” Daily Sabah, 29 February.
Karam, Z. (2016) “Syria’s Assad rejects ‘transitional body’ demanded by rebels Associated Press, 30 March.
Smith, L.(2015) “Obama Avoided Syria Action to Help Iran Negotiations, The Weekly Standard, 8, September
Wintour, P. (2016) “John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’if peace talks fail”, The Guardian, February 23, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/john-kerry-partition-syria-peace-talks.
Al Jazeera (2016) ‘Syria civil war: Kurds declare federal region in north’, 17 March