Resolving the Syrian Morass

by Charles Naas

Last weekend in Vienna the world’s major powers and several additional nations with some direct or regional interest in the chaotic situation that has torn Syria apart—19 in all, including the UN and the EU—took one tiny step to establish a diplomatic process to end Syria’s long travail. No one is optimistic that this session or the next conference this weekend or any of those to follow will succeed in taking a giant step forward. The Syrian situation is undoubtedly one of recent history’s most complex, comparable in living memory only to the negotiations in Paris to end World War One. A long slog is likely, and success is by no means certain.

The various delegations must contend with roughly three overlapping categories of issues. As Yogi Berra advised, “When you come to a fork in the road take it.” The delegates must with great patience walk down each road, always keeping in mind that factors that had been “resolved” may arise again in a different guise. Such a complex process can undermine confidence that consensus can be reached in the end.

The recent session in Vienna addressed the first requirement: to establish general principles to guide the members for the future tough negotiations. The delegates agreed that their discussions will be based on Syria’s territorial integrity, its secular character, and the self-determination of the Syrian people.

Much has been written about whether Syria can be put together again. What about the Kurds who have been the most successful in fighting the terrorist groups that have taken over extensive stretches of eastern Syria? What about the various large tribal or religious groups who will seek at least some degree of autonomy? What can be done to ease the plight of millions fleeing to Europe and elsewhere? The conference was able in effect to put these matters aside with pledges that Syria’s territorial integrity is the agreed objective. The participants are sufficiently experienced to realize that reaching this object will likely require more serious fighting and challenges to all.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has remarked that the main aim of the forthcoming meeting will be to attain agreement on what forces should be deemed “terrorist” by all those convened. This task is probably the easiest to tackle, and it is sensible to address the issue early in the history of the diplomatic initiative. The discussion will require, however, some very dexterous handling. Several regional countries—particularly Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states—have provided important financial aid to the large terrorist group that has morphed into the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) with the aim of defending Sunni societies against the perceived threat of Iranian-sponsored Shi’a elements, particularly Assad and his Alawites. The upcoming session will force the Saudis and their Arab allies to reveal how far they are willing to go to defend the Sunni extremists. Qatar also apparently has the same issue with al-Nusra.

Israel has not been invited to join the negotiations despite its obvious security interests in the future Syrian government and the potential impact on its occupation of the Golan Heights. The US will undoubtedly continue to defend Israeli security interests. Taking the position that IS, al-Nusra, and a number of other groups are terrorist in nature presents no particular problem for the United States, and it certainly is time for much of the world to face that threat. But Hezbollah is a deeply divisive issue. Israel and the US have for a number of years viewed this organization as a terrorist one, and the Arab states see Hezbollah as an enemy and Iranian proxy. But Iran views Hezbollah, with its large, well-armed, and experienced militia, as its primary ally in the region, a defender of Shi’a values and a potential counter-threat to Israel should that country carry out its threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. One temporary solution is to put Hezbollah aside with other disagreements to await a solid consensus on the main concerns.

Unless the United States and Russia have quietly reached an understanding of mutual aims and concerns, President Putin’s recent decision to support Bashar al-Assad with substantial military action could prove unacceptable to the American public, particularly in an election year, and politically and militarily untenable in the region. But successful Russian and US engagement in the long diplomatic negotiations around Iran’s nuclear program may be encouraging. Only time will tell whether the former Cold War opponents can agree on areas of mutual interests and mechanisms to reconcile differences or whether Putin is simply establishing a series of non-negotiable positions. Russia does have significant political and strategic concerns: the return to the homeland of Chechens now fighting with IS and a fear of a deeper infection in the Islamic states on its southern periphery.

Certainly the invitation of Iran to join the negotiations is essential, even if irritating to some Republican Party stalwarts who oppose the nuclear agreement. IS forces have drawn closer to the Iranian frontier and have taken several key Iraqi cities and towns. Iran’s leaders with good reason see their Shi’a faith and leadership under dire threat.

If the conference can stay together, its greatest challenge will be to establish guidelines for the relations between the outside powers and the various parties to the civil conflict inside Syria. For example, is the United States prepared to end support for the so-called rebel groups, and, if so, at what point in the discussions and under what conditions? In this respect, the October discussion wisely put aside one of the more contentious of these issues: the future of Assad and his family. Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that the U.S. demand that Assad must go is not time-specific, and the Russians have indicated some flexibility on the fate of Assad as well.

The initiative finally to stop just complaining about the complexity of the Syrian situation and the flood of migrants to Europe may fall apart, overburdened by intractable historical, religious, and tribal challenges. But for now it is the only multinational body to be brave enough to try.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.