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.