Syria Negotiations: How Appeasing Assad Will Not Yield Peace

by Emile Nakhleh

The much-hyped Syria negotiations in Geneva under the direction of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura are unlikely to ease the suffering of the Syrian people or halt the horrendous violence perpetrated by the Assad regime, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), and other violent groups. The talks planned to start this week supposedly aim at seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict. But they seem totally divorced from the realities on the ground. Accordingly, the likelihood is very high that the talks will fail.

A “roadmap” based on a fragile politics, a vague end game, and deep disagreements over who is invited to negotiate, as the failed Israeli-Palestinian “peace process’” has taught us for nearly 50 years, holds out little hope for achieving a diplomatic solution or, more importantly, for alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people.

The widely touted political solution engineered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a farce, which unfortunately Western policymakers and the United Nations Security Council have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. The regime’s indiscriminate barrel bombing and starving of the Syrian people, especially in rebel-held besieged towns, shows a lack of interest in a political solution. Nor is the regime really committed to free elections and popular participation in the political process or to the release of the thousands of political prisoners that it holds. Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, is working toward a military victory, not a political solution as understood in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Washington and other Western capitals probably understand this game. But they need to act accordingly. Western leaders should call the Russian bluff and embark on a serious military strategy with an eye toward dismantling the Assad regime and defeating the Islamic State. The Syrian dictator is viscerally opposed to democratic transition and to liberty for his people.

As the vengeful Baathist leader of Syria, much like his late father Hafiz and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad believes in total control and in the primacy of the security-driven “deep state.” The Baathist ideology promotes an elitist vision of “unity, liberty, and socialism” but only as defined by the leadership. The Baathist brand of liberty precludes power sharing or respect for human rights, as attested to by the repression and “disappearance” of thousands of Syrian dissidents.

Geneva Talks a Ruse

The Geneva talks are an illusion concocted and propagated by Assad, Putin, and the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in order to help the Syrian dictator win militarily. Although the regime uses terrorism to justify its horrendous repression, it started killing its people right after the eruption of the Arab Spring and way before the declaration of the “Baghdadi Caliphate.” Because of the relatively weak and flailing American position in Syria as compared to Russia, the Obama administration has adopted the Russian deal as the only game in town. Late last year, it co-championed UN Security Council Resolution 2254 calling for peace talks.

At least three reasons drove Washington, London, and Paris to accept the Russian position: a preoccupation with the fight against IS; a feeling of guilt about the human tragedy of the Syrian people in the country and as refugees on the high seas; and the predominant Russian military posture in Syria.

The Geneva talks are designed to appease the Syrian dictator and buy him time until he and his Russian and Iranian allies are able to crush the opposition militarily. He has no qualms about starving his people, destroying his country, and killing thousands of innocent civilians. The Assad regime, under the tutelage of Russia and Iran, has sold its political-solution gimmick while continuing to carpet-bomb Syrian towns and cities, hold many towns hostage, and incarcerate thousands of political dissidents and human rights advocates. The UNSC resolution has called on the regime to end these practices.

Both Assad and the Islamic State are committed to a military solution to the conflict. They have no interest in a political settlement that would weaken their influence or exclude them from playing a role in the future of Syria. It’s farcical to think that Assad is seriously interested in participating in the Geneva talks that would result in his demise and the dismantlement of his regime, no matter how much public support claimed by his UN ambassador and the head of the Syrian delegation to the Geneva talks, Bashar al-Jaafari. It’s equally ludicrous to imagine that IS would support the emergence of a post-conflict democratic Syria.

Despite the good intentions of Staffan de Mistura and the high hopes embodied in UNSC Resolution 2254, there is no political settlement to the Syrian conflict. Only a military solution could depose Assad, contain IS, and reduce the threat of terrorism to the region and globally.

Geneva Talks Stillborn

Three major disagreements will undermine the talks. First there are the various conditions mentioned in the UN resolution: ending indiscriminate bombings, lifting the siege, allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid, and releasing political prisoners. When the opposition raised these issues as a prerequisite for their participation in the talks, however, the Syrian regime delegation and the Russian foreign minister accused them of creating a priori conditions.

A second issue is the murkiness of opposition representation. Often those speaking in Geneva on behalf of the opposition—whether the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiating Committee, opposition NGOs, Ahrar al-Sham, or Jaish al-Islam—have no connection to or influence on what’s happening on the ground. So, whatever commitment they make in Geneva will be ineffectual and even useless. In addition, IS and the Nusra Front have not been invited to the talks. How can Geneva hope to discuss the future of Syria while excluding two groups, no matter how odious, that control almost half of the country? Also, excluding the Kurds because of Turkey’s objections will have a deleterious effect on the outcome of the talks.

Finally, there is disagreement over the endgame. No one seriously expects Assad to agree to fair and free elections, according to international norms, that spell the end of his autocratic rule. After his callous destruction of the country in order to stay in power, Assad will not likely give up power peacefully.

The Way Forward

Assad should have been removed years ago when President Obama called on him to step aside. But that’s now water over the dam. If the United States and its Western allies want to end the suffering of the Syrian people and halt Russian military adventurism in the eastern Mediterranean, they need to take the following steps jointly:

First, they must significantly enhance the efforts of targeting and recruiting intelligence assets within terrorist organizations and within the inner circle of the Assad regime.

Second, they must develop a military strategy, which includes Turkey and Jordan, to establish a no-fly and safety zones and force the Assad regime to halt its indiscriminate bombing of civilians and to allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns. Washington would inform Moscow that the proposed no-fly and safety zones should not be viewed as an act of aggression against Russia.

Third, the military action against Assad conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and Jordan should coincide with ground, air, and intelligence operations against the Islamic State. Yes, this effort will require putting troops on the ground that would come from the five countries. The threats facing the United States and other countries from the regime in Damascus and from IS are equally menacing and must be fought simultaneously and aggressively, not sequentially.

Fourth, this coalition should draw up a list of high regime officials and operatives for possible crimes against humanity, which should be released to the international media and to the Interpol. Plans should get underway to set up a special international tribunal to prosecute those on the list. The threat of prosecution should be used to entice them to defect from the regime.

Finally, UNSC Resolution 2254 should serve as the basis for fair and free elections to be held under international supervision within 18 months. An interim coalition government would be formed of the top two or three winning parties or groups. The Tunisian experience could offer a useful model for Syria.

Some undoubtedly would find fault in this blueprint. However, the continued carnage in Syria, the challenge of dealing with millions of Syrian refugees in the region and elsewhere, and the expanding threat of terrorism constitute a growing danger to the safety and security of regional states and to the United States and its Western allies. It would be a tragedy to continue with the charade of the Geneva talks and not address the Syrian reality.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. It strikes me that the author of this article is a mouthpiece for the CIA, CFR and any other outfit that hires mouths for hire. I think his former employers probably know a lot more than they are letting on with regard to the original stirring up of the situation in Syria.
    The principal reason that the US and its “allies” are falling in behind the Russian and Syrian authorities is because the US has finally realised just how wrong they have been in supporting one of the worst terrorist outfits that they have ever backed – that is ISIS/Daesh.
    There is now a danger of the biter being bit, i.e. the US is being hoist by its own petard in having armed and trained the forces of terrorism with the active local support of the Saud, Jordanian, Turkish and zionist elites in that part of the world.
    They have – between them – created a monster which they have lost control over, just as they did before in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. This is why they have reluctantly concluded they must do a deal with the Syrian regime – including al-Assad – if they are to get the ISIS genie back into the bottle, corked up for all time – they hope.
    One lesson people in the US need to learn is that their administration has been disastrous in foreign policy terms. They should butt out and leave it to others in other parts of the world to resolve their own local problems without unnecessary and illegal interventions by the USA.

  2. I agree with the author on one point: the Geneva negotiations are a farce. The conflict in Syria can and should be settled militarily and hopefully the Russians and Iranians will help Assad eliminate ALL the foreign “rebels”. The Syrian conflict follows a CIA cookie-cutter strategy, create rightwing “rebels” (Mujahideen, ISIS, Contras, Right Sector, Svoboda…), call them “freedom fighters”, train and arm them, subvert the media to plant propaganda as news and with the help of proxies (NED, USAID, Gulf States….) overthrow an independent minded government for one that is compliant to U.S. imperial ambitions.

    This CIA/CFR propaganda is essentially the same lies spread to justify the illegal coup by neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the demonization of Russia; same tune different lyrics.

  3. Wow, it’s as if I woke up and Lobelog became a pro interventionist, regime change, neocon mouth peace overnight.

    This so called expert expects the readers to suddenly forget the disasters in Iraq and Lybia and pretend that US military intervention had been a wonderful success. Forget that the US and it’s Gulf allies have been trying to impose regime change in Syria since at least 2005 (thanks Wikileaks). Forget that the cynical actors sre those who have we. Working to destabilize the region. Forget that it was the US that created AQ in Iraq and that ISIS grew from that.

    No, blame it on the Russians. This dishonest pundit also exposes that he has no interest in democracy. He only supports free and fair elections so long as Assad is not allowed to run, knowing full well that Assad would win a popular vote.

  4. Emile hasn’t learnt anything from interventions in Iraq, Libya, Egypt. He keeps on writing the same story from his comfort zone in the US. One has to be dump not to understand that Middle East was destabilized starting with Iraq war in 2003 and there is no means to put things in order again. Now there are Gulf states, Turkey, Saudis as players in this vicious game each one having a different agenda & target. I am sure none of them care about the Syrian people & children.

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