Peace only on Assad’s terms

With the suspension of the Geneva talks, the Vienna roadmap forward looks both uncertain and unrealistic. U.N. special envoy Stefan de Mistura’s job has never been enviable or easy with the number of competing internal and external actors at play. However, the suspension of talks in Geneva underscores that no one came to these talks ready to engage in a substantive dialog, in particular, President Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran.

As the parties settled into Geneva without yet starting the formal indirect U.N.-mediated talks, Moscow and Tehran-backed ground and air campaign surged onwards. In a sign of bad faith, the Syrian military, with Russian and Iranian assistance, escalated their efforts to advance on Aleppo and cut off the opposition’s main supply line from Turkey.

They have rejected the High Negotiating Committee (HNC)’s conditions for the talks, which is implementation of two articles in December’s U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. These two articles call on all parties to stop bombarding civilians and medical facilities, to release detainees, and to allow humanitarian access to besieged areas.

It’s not surprising then that Russia and Iran have shown no deep interest in sticking to the Vienna road map

Andrew Bowen

Assad has only paid lip service to this demand so far, allowing the Red Crescent to provide aid to the city of Al-Tal, north of Damascus. Under the watchful gaze of its international backers, Damascus has consciously pursued medieval-era tactics to go so far as to literally try to starve his opponents to surrender.

Equally, Russia, Iran, and Damascus are continuing to contest the composition of the Syrian opposition negotiating teams and the Syrian government team has rejected beginning talks until the list of opposition participants is provided to them. For example, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, two designated terrorist groups by Russia, arrived Monday to participate in the peace talks. Moscow noted they can participate in the talks but this does not legitimize them.

Chaos at Geneva

The time now for a settlement on any terms other than President Assad and his patrons isn’t right. Assad, with clear backing from President Putin and Ayatollah Khomeini, is doggedly drawing out these negotiations as long as possible to ensure that his and his allies forces can consolidate control over the critical regime-held areas of the state and suitably create a sizeable buffer between regime areas and opposition-held areas.

It’s not surprising then that Russia and Iran have shown no deep interest in sticking to the Vienna road map. For Moscow, it buys more time for President Putin to both advance his regional and global interests and at the same time, give the appearance that Moscow is actually interested in playing a constructive role. For Tehran, with the advances in Syria, the only concessions to be made in these talks are the ones that advance their interests not limit them. While President Rowhani wants a settlement, peace in Syria will not be at the expense of Tehran’s strategic interests.

As the regime further gains on the battlefield, the HNC and the broader opposition arrived in Geneva in a disadvantaged position. Deeply fractured by differences, these groups have never effectively coalesced around a common negotiating position, beyond Assad must leave office. Equally, concerning, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has indicated no deep commitment to a territorially integrated Syrian state. Beyond these groups, ISIS continues to seek to carve out a hold over Syrian and Iraqi territory, despite recent setbacks.

The HNC’s refusal to begin talks until the regime makes the humanitarian concessions is a substantial roadblock to overcome. Understandably, as the opposition loses further ground, the HNC has very little to show to its constituents on the ground that such negotiations are credible.

It was irresponsible for De Mistura to try to hold these talks with those conditions not credibly met. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an effort to push forward on these talks, misjudged that the opposition could be pushed to the table to talk with no conditions. Moscow and Tehran’s latest offensive on Aleppo underscores that despite Kerry’s close rapport with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, they don’t negotiate with him in good faith.

Fractured Syria

The road to peace through Vienna and Geneva looks long and dim. A national ceasefire, which was supposed to occur as these talks began, is a fantasy. With the opposition reasonably never likely to agree on the terms that Iran, Russia, and President Assad would like, these talks, if they don’t collapse, will outlast President Obama. They also will likely outlast the viability of a territorially and politically integrated Syrian state.

Moscow and Tehran’s ultimate prize is Assad remaining President of Syria. Their consolation and guarantee is political influence and control for the foreseeable future in regime held areas with or without Assad. For the Syrian opposition, a united Syrian polity is gone. The PYD will unlikely ever cede any of their political gains. More broadly, for the U.S. and its allies, the fracturing of Syria will be a long-term challenge well past a political settlement.

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Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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