On July 29, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, stood before the UN Security Council to explain his strategy for peace in Syria. The Swedish-Italian diplomat took office in July 2014, following the resignation of his predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi, who had attempted to reconcile Syria’s warring parties at a high-stakes peace conference known as Geneva II. Held in two rounds in January and February 2014, these talks failed to produce any results.
Pessimistic about the chances for a countrywide peace deal, de Mistura first tried to negotiate a local ceasefire in the Aleppo area. It failed, for many of the same reasons that Geneva II had failed: lukewarm international support, attempts by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to water down and exploit the deal, and outright hostility from armed rebels who were, in any case, too divided to effectively enforce a ceasefire. In spring 2015, de Mistura gave up on the Aleppo plan, at least for the time being. Acting on instructions from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he instead launched a series of consultative talks with the parties in April 2015, to prepare for a reboot of the peace process.
Meanwhile, the tide of the conflict turned. Assad had enjoyed battlefield success for much of 2014, but by March 2015, his hollowed-out economy and understaffed army began to buckle. The Iranian nuclear deal concluded on June 14, 2015, seemed set to strengthen one of Assad’s key allies. Several opposition conferences have taken place inside and outside of Syria during the year, some of them backed by the Syrian president’s other major ally, Russia, and many have speculated that these meetings are linked to “Geneva III,” as de Mistura’s efforts were inevitably dubbed.
Although de Mistura was reportedly pressured by some countries in the Security Council to convene another conference on the Brahimi model, he finally opted for a more cautious approach. Saying that he does not see any real chance for a peaceful political transition in Syria at this time, de Mistura declared on July 29 that he will try to engage the parties in a less contentious negotiating format, aiming to limit human suffering, identify areas of shared interest, and formulate common principles. If successful, these talks could pave the way for negotiations over core issues in the future. For now, four working groups will be set up to discuss “safety and protection for all, political and constitutional issues, military and security issues, and public institutions, reconstruction and development,” in the words of one news report.How will de Mistura’s project affect Syria’s future and what is in store for the country in 2015? To answer these questions, I have asked a group of leading Syria specialists to explain how they rate chances of the UN peace bid and how they view Syria’s future more generally. I’m sad but not surprised to see the level of pessimism that prevails.
President Bashar al-Assad is simply not going to realistically engage in a process that brings about his demise, especially not when his “us or the extremists” narrative seems to be gaining traction (to varying degrees) in global capitals. There are fractures, however, within his regime that might affect that calculation further down the road.
On the other side of the table, Syria’s political opposition speaks only for itself (and not with one voice). It does not have the credibility inside Syria to impose or implement anything, especially while it remains in exile and its members bicker over chairs they think they can carry over the border. A fair number of people inside Syria, however, are simply fed up and just want this to end. That will be difficult while the guys with the guns on all sides still think they can win militarily, or at least hold onto what matters most to them—with the exception of whatever remains of the always loose collective known as the Free Syrian Army that knows it is done for now. The others, the non–Free Syrian Army factions, Assad’s army, and affiliated militias, aren’t ready for serious peace talks yet, nor are their international backers. This has been more than an inter-Syrian conflict for a long while. There are other decisive foreign elements, like Lebanese Hezbollah, and transnational groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State who are on the battlefield but won’t be sitting around any table.
War is about ebb and flow, and regrettably, I think we are still in the early stages of what will be a much longer war. Syria has not yet hit the bottom.Rania Abouzeid is an independent journalist who has reported extensively from Syria. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @raniaab.
A “Geneva III” process might come about because of the activism of the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura and efforts by Moscow and Cairo to explore possible areas of agreement between the parties. However, despite a “hurting stalemate,” the moment, as of summer 2015, is not “ripe” for successful negotiations.
Damascus is now on the defensive and some infighting among regime elites increases pressure on the regime to bid for a negotiated transition in which its core interests would be preserved. However, the regime’s enemies—emboldened by its setbacks and vulnerabilities, and by the newly-cooperating Sunni axis linking Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar, backing the most militarily effective jihadist elements against the regime—apparently now believe they can win militarily and see no need for a compromise settlement. Yet, the regime is unlikely to soon collapse and neither side has the decisive combination of resources to prevail.
Indeed, given that the conflict is now at least a three-sided contest among regime, opposition, and the Islamic State, “victory” by any party seems all the more problematic. Continued protracted conflict is set to continue, with Syria divided into spheres of influence of competing regional powers. Iran and Hezbollah will seek to consolidate their position in Damascus, the Qalamoun, western Homs, and Tartous. Jordan and the Gulf (and Israel) will support opposition Free Syrian Army groups in Daraa and Quneitra. Turkey and Qatar will support Islamist factions in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo that seek to overrun the regime-controlled part of the city of Aleppo. The Islamic State will preserve its own state in the east, battling the Kurds, Islamist rivals, and the regime. The de facto separation of the country will harden.Raymond Hinnebusch is the director of the Center for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Follow the center on Twitter: @SyriaStudies.
De Mistura will find making peace between Syrians all but impossible. Neither side is inclined to compromise or make concessions. All distrust the UN.
Assad has made it patently clear that he will not make important reforms to his political system and will fight to the end. He can be compelled to shrink the area he controls, but cannot be compelled to compromise or step aside. In his latest speech he emphasized that the war is one of existence. There is every reason to believe that his assessment is correct—at least for the officers that police his security state and perhaps even for the Alawite community that has fought so hard for him.
Syrian rebels are no less stubborn and view their war against Assad and Alawite domination in existential terms as well. The rebel factions remain as fragmented as ever, vying for control of territory and headlines, which makes negotiating with them practically impossible. The most powerful factions are uncompromisingly Islamist and harbor deep distrust of the West. Not only do they reject any dialogue with Assad, but they have denounced de Mistura and the UN as being hopelessly pro-Assad and pro-Iran.
Both sides remain adamant that they will prevail on the battlefield and reject talking to the other side.Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and runs the blog Syria Comment. Follow him on Twitter: @Joshua_Landis.
For some, the plan put forward by de Mistura to the UN Security Council on July 29 is the logical and only path forward. By extending consultations within a more focused framework based around four thematic areas, de Mistura is effectively running a Track II process, seeking to ascertain and amplify potential areas of common ground.
With Syrian consultative and dialogue processes in Cairo, Moscow, Geneva, Paris, and elsewhere now behind us, the issue of “solving Syria” is focusing the attention of decisionmakers across the Middle East. A new process or conference is purportedly in the works in Riyadh, for example. Some say the Iran deal may provide scope for a more constructive consideration of a phased transition in Damascus, suitable to all key players—though there is little evidence of that. More immediately, many eyes will be watching the outcome of today’s meeting in Doha between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Engaging regional actors is all well and good, but peace will never prevail in Syria unless all of the Syrian opposition’s armed factions are included in a peace process. Perhaps de Mistura’s most consequential blunder was in failing to effectively engage these actors from the start. Though minimally visible to the public, the armed opposition has recently invested considerable resources into discussing a negotiated settlement and the establishment of a transitional governing body, which may include former regime officials “with no blood on their hands.” This renewed political attention should be capitalized on urgently. It will not last forever.Charles Lister is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Follow him on Twitter: @Charles_Lister.
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