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Betting on Russia’s need to withdraw from Syria

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

If the letter from the Syrian opposition Higher Negotiation Council (HNC) to the U.N. Secretary General, 48 hours before the Geneva talks on Friday, was to specify demands and stances, then that would be prudent in the context of negotiation strategy.

But if Dr. Riyad Hijab is serious that the HNC has preconditions – such as full implementation of the Geneva Communique, resolution 2254, ending sieges, delivering aid, stopping attacks on civilians, and releasing detainees before holding talks – then he would be absconding from the Geneva talks on behalf of the HNC or committing a tactical mistake in his negotiation strategy.

Indeed, no matter how justified the opposition demands are, politically and militarily, it must not act without taking stock of facts on the ground. We are not in 2012, when the Geneva Communique was passed before being shelved at the Security Council by both the United States and Russia.

That communique called for the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers mutually agreed between the regime and opposition representatives. In reality, however, the U.S., Russia, and the U.N. have for all intents and purposes replaced the communique with the Vienna process under different frames of reference.

Vienna is essentially a Russian-owned process concocted in parallel with its military intervention in Syria

Raghida Dergham

Vienna is essentially a Russian-owned process concocted in parallel with its military intervention in Syria. This has changed equations at multiple levels, with Russian air strikes going hand-in-hand with its diplomatic moves. We are in the era of U.S. capitulation to Iran and complacency towards its militias fighting alongside the Assad regime, all while the Obama administration claims it wants to see Assad step down.

What is needed is a logical and honest review of who made promises and reneged on them, who escalated then backtracked, and who remained persistent in their loyalty toward Assad for strategic calculations and self-interest such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – and who splintered in the opposition and engaged in internal rivalries.

We are in a position where we have to choose between further Russian strikes on Syrian rebels in support of Iranian-assisted regime on the ground; and heading to Geneva with a seasoned opposition delegation that can compel Russia and the regime in Damascus to implement ceasefire and that can impose itself in any political deal.

Geneva Communique

This may be labelled as a call for surrender as the U.N. backs away from the Geneva Communique in favor of a loose reference framework in the Vienna process. Loose because of the radical differences between the 20 powers involved in the process, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly over the fate of Bashar al-Assad: will he remain in power to run in the elections after 18 months of the political process or will he step down under a Russian-U.S.-Iranian agreement before?

It might be said that it would be moral bankruptcy for the Syrian opposition to be placed before the choice of either surrendering to the U.S. and U.N.-sanctioned Russian/Iranian demands, or being blamed for not only foiling the Vienna process, but also intensifying the Russian bombardment and the brutal campaign of the regime forces and allied militias.

The opposition might object to the fact that there is not even a hint of the Geneva Communique in the propositions and no declaration of its death upon the birth of the Vienna process. More importantly, the opposition might object to the U.S. and international complacency towards war crimes and ethnic cleansing, demographic engineering plans being apparently part of the negotiations in Vienna.

All this is true. But the question is, what should otherwise be done? If the Syrian opposition comes to believe that more compromises will squander all reasonable settlements without any return, then it is best to develop a strategy to set priorities and alternative plans in the event the players in Syria reject them.

This requires two things: clear position of the multiple opposition forces and how much these can be brought together to agree on priorities and demands. And second is the clarity over political and military margin of support of the countries backing the opposition. To be sure, the ambiguity and ambivalence in this respect fuels polarization and meddling, which harms the Syrian opposition and its reputation.

The Syrian opposition might decide that the tragedy and humanitarian disaster in Syria force it to consider choices such as consenting to incomplete deals in the Vienna process and going to the Geneva talks, as the U.N. envoy de Mistura desires, to launch negotiations and reach a ceasefire during the talks.

In other words, the Syrian opposition may decide that the best option is not to give Assad or Putin the gift of boycotting the talks and avoid being blamed for foiling the political transition in Syria, and the continuation of Russian-Syrian bombardment without agreeing to a ceasefire. If HNC decides to head to Geneva, the first thing it has to admit is that this is not Geneva-3. It is Vienna 1.

Political realism

Syrian opposition has the ability and the right to take any demand it deems reasonable to the talks, as long as it is realistic politically and represents a solid reference point. It must adopt a conscious humanitarian strategy to ensure that the appalling international neglect of Syrian lives does not continue. However, the first step must focus on unification and skillful negotiation, then on clarity in the positions of allies instead of polarization and meddling, and third, on developing a clear vision and a realistic roadmap.

Political realism requires understanding that the new decisive factor in Syria is the direct Russian role in the battles in support of the regime at any cost. Some believe Syria will be Russia’s new Afghanistan and that its victories will soon evaporate.

This is indeed possible but the reality on the ground does not indicate the armed opposition or ISIS could turn the tide in the U.S.-sanctioned and Iranian-Russian supported war alongside the regime in Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Political realism indicates that the U.S. is pursuing a neutral policy in Syria during the presidential elections and this too is a crucial and decisive factor.

Senior officials at the U.N. say that Staffan De Mistura and his team are wagering on Russia’s need to withdraw from Syria before it becomes entangled in a quagmire. The international envoy, and his team, believe that the window is now open to Russian concessions in the framework of the Vienna process and for discussions if the opposition delegation proves it is politically seasoned.

Positive change is possible on the ground in light of the talks, otherwise the negative change would be the intensification of the bombing campaign. The Russian-led camp would be free to do so if the political track in Geneva fails.

There are no easy options for the Syrian opposition, especially in light of its divisions and the false promises of some of its backers. No one is innocent of what has happened in Syria, in varying degrees of course, including the opposition itself.

The situation in Syria is not one of victor versus vanquished. No one is winning in Syria whether it is the regime, ISIS, Nusra Front, Russia, Iran or Iranian-backed militias. Certainly, nor is the Syrian opposition.

It is naïve to say that Assad’s survival is a victory as it has brought Russia and Iran on his side, with international consent at least for 18 months in accordance to the Vienna process time frame. But there can be no victory for someone who turned his country into a magnet for terrorists and militias, and who has given open invitation to foreign military intervention just to remain in power.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 29, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
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Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

In addition to covering the crucial American-Soviet Summits in the 80s and the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with Heads of State and Government Leaders throughout the world and moderated a roundtable of eight Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham is Contributor to The Huffington Post, Opinion Writer for Al Arabiya English, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek. She was Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC for eight years as well as a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint. As president of the United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997, Dergham was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005.

Dergham is a frequent lecturer at Universities, Think Tanks and Business Councils throughout the world. She spoke at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Georgetown among other distinguished universities. She is a frequent participant in Policy conferences and is quoted in several books. A recipient of numerous lifetime achievement awards, Dr. Dergham is in SUNY's Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alumna and has received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the New York State University comprised of 64 institutions.

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