The new Syrian peace process launched by United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura is a two-track affair: one internal, among Syrians, and one external, among the nations fueling the war.
The Swedish-Italian diplomat, who took office in July 2014, first tried to broker a local ceasefire in Aleppo, arguing that only a “bottom-up” peace process would work on a battlefield as chaotic as that in Syria. By spring 2015, this had failed. The Syrian government refused all but the most minimal concessions, while Aleppo’s rebels rejected the plan entirely and some of them condemned de Mistura himself as being being “close to the regime and Iran.”
In April 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon instructed de Mistura to reboot the peace process. Some Security Council members apparently expressed a preference for a more traditional and “top-down” negotiating framework, similar to the Geneva II meetings of January and February 2014. However, after consulting with Syrians on all sides through spring and summer, de Mistura stated that core issues like the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are at this point impossible to resolve in negotiations. A different approach would be needed—or two.
Instead of attempting a high-stakes Geneva III conference, the failure of which would be all but guaranteed, de Mistura decided to try for something more achievable. He called on the warring parties to join nonbinding discussions in four working groups, each of them under the leadership of a non-Syrian “facilitator:”
The four facilitators hail from countries with minimal involvement in the Syrian war, but they all have some level of professional experience with Syria. Egeland, who helped organize peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s, now serves as head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs extensive aid operations in Syria and neighboring countries. Michel, who is an expert in international law, was already part of Kofi Annan’s peacemaking efforts in Syria in 2012. Perthes is a well-regarded Syria expert and Arabist. Holst Alani is a relative newcomer to the conflict, having taken charge of Sweden’s Beirut-based embassy to Syria half a year ago, but she is an Arabic speaker with extensive experience in other parts of the region.
All in all, they seem like a fairly competent bunch, but you can’t please everyone. The Russian academic Vitaly Naumkin—who has organized a separate peace process on behalf of the Russian government—recently complained that the working group facilitators are all “representatives of great powers” and “exclusively from NATO countries.” That’s a strange argument, because while Germany might qualify as a “great power,” the other three are nothing of the sort and neither Switzerland nor Sweden is a NATO member.
More generally speaking, de Mistura’s approach has much to recommend it. After the fiasco at Geneva II and de Mistura’s own failed bid for an Aleppo ceasefire, it makes sense to aim low instead of seeking an impossible consensus on Assad’s role. But there is precious little will to compromise among the warring parties and plenty of obstacles before talks can begin. The Syrian government has approved of the working groups on the condition that they are a mere “brainstorming” exercise, but they have already been rejected by most Syrian rebel groups and by the mainstream political opposition. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether this intra-Syrian part of the plan will ever get off the ground.
The other part of Staffan de Mistura’s plan is what you might call an international working group, which will operate in parallel to any talks among Syrians. This part of the process has no Syrian involvement at all, instead focusing entirely on international and regional actors.
It’s no secret that the world is split over Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is backed mainly by Russia and Iran, but also to some extent by China, Iraq, and others. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates all support the opposition and send weapons to Sunni rebel groups, though not necessarily the same ones.
Both of de Mistura’s predecessors as Syria envoys, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, complained of being undercut by international rivalries. Annan memorably denounced the “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council” and said that his peace bid “fell apart in New York” rather than in Syria. Without “serious, purposeful and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region,” Annan stated, peace in Syria is impossible.
In a better world, Syria’s future would be up to Syrians alone. But as you may have guessed by now, that’s not where we live. In seeking to bring an end to this war, the existence of regional and international interests in Syria simply cannot be ignored.But perhaps they can be harnessed?
Chastened by the failure of his predecessors, Staffan de Mistura has tried to encourage the creation of a permanent consultation mechanism through which governments involved in the war can exchange views and sound out their rivals. It would be similar to the 1994 Contact Group that gathered the United States, France, Germany, Britain, and Russia in talks over the war then raging in the Balkans.
In Syria, it is easy to see the merits of such a group. The warring parties are by now heavily dependent on their foreign sponsors, to the extent that unified international pressure could have a great effect on their behavior. Of course, no one expects a miracle. With Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in proxy conflict all over the Middle East, and American-Russian relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, it is hard to imagine an agreement on Syria any time soon. And given the chaos inside the country and the difficulty in controlling independently minded clients, even such an agreement would not suffice to end the war. But it would certainly be a step in the right direction. So far, little seems to have happened on this front, and the Russian intervention in Syria has just complicated matters even more. But whether or not the four working groups ever become operational, the Contact Group is worth pursuing—not despite the hardening internal rivalries, but because of them.
Predictably enough, there are different views on which states should be part of such a group. Since it would be made up of sovereign states, which are free to do as they please in the absence of agreement, it doesn’t really matter which side holds the majority. But it does make sense to try to stay small and manageable instead of setting up another pointless talking shop. What that means is that participation should be restricted to the handful of countries that can bring real influence to the table and that would otherwise be likely to act as spoilers in order to safeguard their interests.
The core members are easy to identify. As veto-wielding world powers with direct involvement in the war, the United States and Russia are obvious picks. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and Iran—if they can be made to sit down to talk constructively about Syria’s future, that alone will have been worth the effort. Fifth on the list must be Turkey, where so much of the armed opposition is based.
Then it gets trickier. Qatar is a major donor to the Syrian rebels, largely aligned with Turkey. The United Arab Emirates is another one, largely aligned with Saudi Arabia. And then there’s China, Britain, and France, the remaining three veto powers in the Security Council.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently suggested that a Contact Group composed of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, Egypt, and possibly “others” could convene in Geneva as early as this month. Naumkin, the academic, has flouted the same set of names. It may simply be a Russian attempt to plant the idea in public debate, in order to influence talks on who should be in the group, since there is little to suggest that discussions have really advanced that far.
But let’s take the Russian suggestion at face value. In such a construction, Qatar would presumably have to pursue its interests by way of Turkish or Saudi representation. And Egypt? The Russians clearly appreciate President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s anti-Islamist policies and his support for their intervention in Syria. There is also a case to be made for Egypt’s semi-neutrality and its historical centrality in Arab politics as positive assets in a diplomatic setting.
But the Russian line is not clear and may involve a format whereby some nations are “kept in the loop, even if they aren’t sitting at the negotiating table,” according to the Associated Press. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the United States, and China all have some role to play in Syria. True as that may be, the list is getting a bit long.
The United States and its European allies are also said to be split on who should get to go to Geneva. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has argued for a formula based on the P5+1 group that negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal. That would mean a Contact Group consisting of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Iran, plus additional “key regional partners,” apparently in reference to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. According to the Associated Press, this approach also has the backing of London and Berlin. One need not be a political genius, or even a cynic, to see that France, Britain, and Germany see the P5+1 formula as a way of granting extra influence to France, Britain, and Germany.
Washington has previously sought to bring some of the core parties together, such as at the August 2015 Doha Meeting that involved the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. But in so far as they have a clear policy on this, the Americans are reportedly less fond of the P5+1 idea, preferring to go for a smaller group.
That is probably a good idea. At the moment, the core states of the conflict are the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps Qatar. Among independent foreign actors, these are the ones that are most powerful inside Syria. Other nations can of course be invited along the way, or “kept in the loop,” but there is no reason to start with a more sprawling group than necessary. Having Germany, France, Britain, Egypt, and China sit in on every meeting would mean a lot more hot air and a lot more leaks to the press, but it would do little to build influence on the ground.
Germany clearly does a laudable job of receiving Syrian refugees, and it is arguably the most influential country in the European Union, but that is not the same as having influence over the war in Syria. France and Britain are more closely involved with the military side of things, bombing the self-proclaimed Islamic State and backing select Syrian rebel groups—but at the end of the day, they are America’s adjuncts. Shout and moan they may, but without Washington they cannot and will not pursue independent action in Syria. It is also obvious that neither France nor Britain is sufficiently invested in the war to want to sabotage a peace process, once it gets rolling. Therefore, they should follow Germany out of the room. There are plenty of problems to take care of in Europe where their presence really is needed. (And we don’t see Iran demanding a seat at the Greek budget talks, do we?)
Bringing in Egypt makes even less sense. Cairo’s influence over events inside Syria is precisely zero, and the chaos of the Arab Spring has left it an arena for conflict rather than a conflict-solver. Whatever remains of its pan-Arab aura, it would be naive to expect historical prestige to have any pull with the genocidal gangs now tearing Syria apart.
China, finally, may have co-vetoed Security Council resolutions with the Russians in the past, but only to back up a Russian policy with which Beijing happens to agree. The Chinese government has only a cursory interest in what goes on in Damascus, and it will not stick its neck out for Assad if the Russians don’t—so Russia needs a seat and China doesn’t.
In other words, keep it simple and keep it small. With a million more Syrians expected to have fled their homes by the end of this year, it is not the time for petty politics. A Contact Group should be formed, but what matters is not that every nation with some interest in Syria is given a voice at the peace talks, or that everyone agrees to every step along the way, but that the necessary critical mass can be formed to allow for forward momentum at all. Peace negotiations are not an open-mic forum.
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