Syrian Peace Talks Need to Focus on Governance

by Derek Davison

With a second round of international talks on finding an end to Syria’s civil war taking place in Vienna on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry discussed his approach to the negotiations in an address to the U.S. Institute of Peace on Thursday. Cautioning that “I cannot say this afternoon that we are on the threshold of a comprehensive agreement,” Kerry nonetheless lauded the progress that the Vienna talks made in just their first round, held last month:

Now, this possibility was the focus of meetings in Vienna at the end of last month, meetings that for the first time brought together all the key international interested parties to the very same table. And guess what? It came out with a product. That session produced a communique endorsed by every country who attended—countries that don’t always agree on much—like Saudi Arabia and Iran—but who do agree that Daesh is evil and that the war in Syria must be brought to an acceptable end as soon as possible.

Kerry said that all parties to the talks agreed on maintaining Syria’s “unity, independence, territorial integrity, and pluralistic character,” on the importance of defeating the Islamic State, on protecting “the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination,” on the need to increase humanitarian support, especially for Syria’s displaced persons and refugees, and on transitioning Syria “to a credible, inclusive, non-sectarian” form of government, including a new constitution and “free and fair, transparent, accountable elections.” Considering that the Vienna talks involved 19 participants—including the European Union and the United Nations (though, ironically, not including any Syrians), some of whom do have substantial disagreements with one another—even establishing this very general framework represents significant progress.

The one issue that the October round of talks explicitly tabled was the question of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ultimate fate, for a simple reason: Assad’s fate is the one thing about which the participants in the Vienna most assuredly do not agree. In particular, it has been the policy of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey that Assad must give up power as a precursor to ending the civil war, while Iran and Russia have been insisting that Assad should remain in power at least through the transition to a new political system (though Russia and Iran, may not be on the same page). Although both sides may be softening their positions on Assad’s future, these adjustments have not yet opened the door to any diplomatic breakthroughs.

However, the Assad question may be subsumed by the issue of future Syrian governance. The Middle East Institute’s Robert Ford, who was the last U.S. ambassador to Syria (he retired in 2014 and was replaced by a special envoy), argued in a November 10 piece that governance, and specifically the rule of law, was the key to stabilizing Syria’s political future. He contended that any elections conducted under the auspices of the Assad regime, or its security establishment, will inevitably be tainted, and that substantial reforms would therefore have to be made in advance of voting:

It is exceptionally important, therefore, that the governance element mentioned in the Vienna communiqué start to address long-overdue rule of law and security sector reforms. That means more than a few cosmetic changes to the existing Syrian government well before any UN-supervised elections can be held.  In particular, there need to be substantial changes in the security apparatus, both leadership and procedures; this will be difficult, but it is urgent. Local ceasefires and release of political prisoners is not nearly enough to reform governance. Completely abolishing the security apparatus, as the Americans did in Iraq, is not the right answer either; but in addition to leadership changes, there will need to be a powerful and fair vetting system for security officials.

Russia’s recent proposal of an 18-month transition in Syria anticipates elections in 2017. That transition period would, theoretically, offer an opportunity for a genuine reconstruction of the Syrian state that enshrines the rule of law in its system of governance. But without more details about the nature of that 18-month transition, it’s impossible to evaluate the merits of that proposal.

Simply holding elections is not enough. Syria holds “presidential elections” every seven years, and they’re a farce. They were held as referendums (i.e., Assad standing unopposed) until the constitution was changed in 2012 to allow multi-candidate elections. Assad then won a “contested” election in 2014 that was tainted by opposition boycotts and the fact that nobody living in rebel-held areas of the country was able to vote. If it were possible to hold truly free and fair elections, respecting the rule of law, in a united Syria tomorrow, Assad would not likely win. His forces, after all, have spent over four years killing tens of thousands of Syrians and displacing millions more. Still, it’s not impossible. The question facing the participants in the Vienna talks—as well as Assad and the Syrian rebels whose goal is a civil, democratic Syria—is whether or not they will go along with a political transition that will likely see Assad removed from office but that leaves open the possibility that he might remain.

Scholars Chester Crocker and Ross Harrison have argued that the emphasis in Vienna should be on salvaging the “idea” of Syria as a nation rather than on the more divisive question of who gets to govern that nation. This seems to be the direction that the Vienna talks have taken thus far. But addressing the question of how Syria will be governed is essential to finding a way to keep it together. Unless the pro- and anti-Assad forces are prepared to commit to real, open democracy, with no guarantees about Assad’s future beyond the idea that the Syrian people will freely and fairly determine the political system , the prospects for an end to the civil war will remain hypothetical.

Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks with Secretary of State John Kerry

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. @ “If it were possible to hold truly free and fair elections, respecting the rule of law, in a united Syria tomorrow, Assad would not likely win.”

    That’s not what the public opinion polls in Syria say.

  2. Dear Paul, please keep apologizing for murderous dictators like Assad. They need useful idiots like you.

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