Geneva: Pulling in the Same Direction

If talks in Geneva under UN auspices between Syrian opposition and regime delegations are to be productive, the United States and its partners simply cannot act as even-handed, disinterested mediators and purveyors of diplomatic good offices, urging—as Secretary of State John Kerry does repeatedly—both sides to negotiate in good faith. This is not the time for Washington to pose as a neutral party. Leaving the opposition delegation to fend for itself while Russia and Iran militarily back a client regime to the hilt is the exact recipe for process without end and endless war, one posing a threat to international peace. And it would be a mistake for the Syrian opposition to assume that Washington is hopeless and to act in accordance with that view.

The fact that John Kerry takes seriously the American role as “co-convener” of a process aimed at full, negotiated political transition in Syria is hardly damnable. There is no doubt that Washington would like to see precisely what it has said it wants to see: a negotiated political settlement fully consistent with the June 2012 Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria.

Yet what of the other co-convener? Russia is a combatant in Syria. Reliable data suggest that Russian military aircraft have, to date, killed over 1,000 Syrian civilians: a figure adding to the 180,000 killed by its Syrian client and far in excess of the number of civilians killed by Assad regime chemical atrocities. What could be more natural and appropriate than Moscow terminating, for the sake of negotiations it claims to be cosponsoring, a military campaign aimed in great measure against armed groups and civilians opposed both to the Assad regime and the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh)?

And what could be more unnatural and inappropriate, given Russia’s behavior, than the United States to play at Geneva the role of auxiliary to the United Nations, dispensing harsh, Dutch Uncle advice to an opposition delegation that is objectively powerless to stop Russians, Iranians, and Assad regime operatives from bombing, besieging, incarcerating, and terrorizing opposition constituents? It will be hard enough—ultimately impossible—for the Syrian opposition to participate in this process if mass murder and collective punishment continue. Support for negotiations within the Syrian constituency—currently high—will evaporate if they prove to be a time-buying mechanism for a Russian military campaign aimed at eliminating all non-ISIL alternatives to Assad.

Some—perhaps many—in the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee suspect that what is afoot here is indeed a time-buying process aimed fundamentally at serving the interests of two people: Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. For Putin it purchases more time to help Assad neutralize and eliminate non-ISIL enemies. For Obama it provides a potential procedural bridge to January 20, 2017, when at noon it becomes someone else’s problem. Putin, according to Syrian opposition views, will do whatever it takes to try to create for the world a binary choice between Assad and ISIL. Obama, in the opinions of many opposition figures, will never lift a finger to protect a single Syrian from regime and Russian mass murder and will thereby doom the negotiating process in the regime’s favor.

The concern, therefore, in the ranks of the opposition delegation, is that the United States will hold it at arm’s length, telling it that it bears full responsibility for negotiating arrangements that would end the fighting on whatever terms it can secure; and that if it finds it must, in the end, accept an ongoing political leadership role for Bashar al-Assad in order to stop the slaughter (at least at the wholesale level), oh well: c’est la guerre.

Is the concern a valid one? Those who can answer the question definitively—President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—were not consulted for this article. The view here is that nothing positive will be accomplished in Geneva as long as civilians remain on the bullseye in Syria. If the bombings do not stop, if the sieges are not lifted, and if the prisons are not emptied of political detainees—starting with women and children—proximity talks and direct negotiations will be worse than useless. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has said that ongoing atrocities would strip the negotiations of meaning and render the exercise just another trip to Geneva. It is worse than that. With civilians remaining on the bullseye these talks would actually facilitate ongoing murder and mayhem; they would promote mass terror and stimulate renewed refugee flows, accelerating the emptying of Syria.

Nevertheless, anti-Assad and anti-ISIL Syrians inside Syria—including civil society leaders—have expressed support for the opposition High Negotiating Committee coming to Geneva and negotiating in good faith. This imposes an obligation on the opposition delegation far more serious than that derived from hard-talk administered by UN and American officials. Their constituents want protection from war crimes and crimes against humanity, and they want peace. And, unlike Western commentators devising grand compromises for Syria from the comfort of their studies, they know that sustainable peace means sidelining the premier mass murder machine of the twenty-first century.

The opposition, therefore, must press on two fronts at Geneva: civilian protection and (consistent with the June 2012 Action Group for Syria Final Communique) political transition. It should resist being sidetracked or distracted by other matters.

With respect to civilian protection, the opposition delegation should continue to insist that it is a requirement of international law: not a homework assignment for it to complete. It should take the position that the international community—represented by the UN Security Council—must compel an end to Assad regime atrocities, and that if one permanent member of the Security Council persists in facilitating and supplementing those atrocities other members should take steps to provide the required protection.

At the same time, however, the delegation should engage with flexibility and creativity in ceasefire discussions that could produce relief for civilians. Although protection of civilians should—as a requirement of international law—never be dependent on ceasefire terms arrived at between combatants, the opposition would do well not to assume that the United States and its partners will indeed protect Syrians in Syria from the depredations of the regime and its enablers. The record is not good: to date not a single Syrian person has been protected.

American responsibilities in this matter are weighty. Their implementation begins with abandoning any operational sense of neutrality and disinterest, unless of course the point of the exercise is as many in the opposition fear it is.

The first responsibility is to bring American intent operationally into line with administration rhetoric. President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and—above all—Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power—have spoken eloquently and movingly about the humanitarian horror and ISIL-abetting policy disaster brought about by the mass homicide political survival strategy of the Assad regime. If they are serious they will make the protection of civilians in Syria a centerpiece of American foreign policy and the dominant issue in the American-Russian bilateral relationship. And this does not mean trading things away elsewhere for the sake of civilized Russian behavior in Syria. Ideally Russia can be persuaded with logical argumentation that its interests can be best served by getting Assad out of the mass murder business and by terminating its own military campaign. The ideal may not, however, be attainable. Alternatives are not risk-free: the status quo is already demonstrably catastrophic. If the administration is serious about these negotiations it will, with the support of partners, find the ways and means to protect Syrian civilians.

Seriousness also means working cooperatively and supportively with the opposition delegation. Both the US government and the Syrian opposition have reportedly studied with care the challenges and opportunities presented by the ceasefire issue. They should share information and exchange views in complete confidence.

And both should exercise care in avoiding poison pills that could undermine ceasefire possibilities. What if, for example, armed elements affiliated with the Nusra Front were actually to agree to ceasefire terms? Would their accession to a ceasefire be rejected? Would they still be fit targets for military engagement?

In its present state the discussion of who—in the context of Syria—is a terrorist somehow excludes two longtime, expert practitioners: Hezbollah and the Assad regime. As a practical matter, however, it might be more useful under current circumstances to apply the appellation and penalties pertaining thereto to those who elect not to partake in ceasefire arrangements. ISIL’s position on this matter can be taken for granted. Nusra—whose rank-and-file consists largely of young Syrian men with community ties who signed up for resource-related reasons—may be a different matter. If not, ways and means must be identified to kill it, along with ISIL.

Notwithstanding beliefs embedded in the Syrian opposition, there is no shortage of American officials—some of them senior—absolutely dedicated to the protection of Syrian civilians as the gateway to an inclusive political settlement, one promoting humanitarian relief, economic reconstruction, and full reconciliation. These fine Americans have not signed up for a time-wasting exercise. They do not consider themselves pawns in a plot to perpetuate Assad and destroy Syria utterly.

The bilateral, American-Syrian opposition outreach mandated for useful and ultimately successful negotiations in Geneva is not a requirement falling exclusively on Americans. Yes, there have been profound disappointments. Yes, there are worries and suspicions. Still, there is much in American culture and values that uphold and celebrate consistency between word and deed. It took a long time in the 1990s for the United States to do the right thing in Bosnia. It would be a mistake for the Syrian opposition to assume permanent American failure with respect to Syria. Even if Geneva falls short diplomatically, it may serve the purpose of having exhausted all of the alternatives to doing the right thing. Success or redeemable failure both will require Americans and Syrians to suspend mutual disbelief and work together cooperatively.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: (Photo: Reuters. With cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, 13-year-old displaced Syrian girl Malek Al Rifai stands in front of a U.S. flag while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York August 21, 2013. Several dozens supporters of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria gathered outside the United Nations building on Wednesday to protest the alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus. The U.N. Security Council said it was necessary to clarify an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus suburbs on Wednesday but stopped short of demanding a probe by U.N. investigators currently in Syria. Coalition for a Democratic Syria. REUTERS/Adrees Latif )