The Unavoidable Reality of the Geneva Process

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, was blunt in his remarks on February 23, 2016 during the first day of renewed Syrian peace talks in ten months. Sitting between the Syrian government delegation and the group of opposition politicians under the High Negotiations Committee, de Mistura implored the parties to start exhibiting some leadership and selflessness for the sake of the millions of civilians who remain tired, injured, hungry, and homeless. “The Syrian people desperately all want an end to this conflict and you all know it,” the veteran diplomat told both delegations. “You are the first ones to tell us it. They are waiting for a relief from their own suffering and dream of a new road out of this nightmare to a new and normal future in dignity.”

So far, the UN envoy has not had much to show for his tireless peace efforts. Notwithstanding several rounds of discussions between Assad regime diplomats and opposition represents, nothing specific in terms of a peace roadmap has been produced. The international community, with Washington and Moscow in the lead, had to force a solution down the throats of Bashar al-Assad and his opponents, culminating in Security Council Resolution 2254, which laid out several benchmarks (a transitional government, a new constitution, free elections in 18 months) that would guide negotiating efforts towards a resolution. The formation of a broad based, inclusive, non-sectarian national unity government with participation from regime and opposition politicians is the straightforward, holding-pattern solution to this ongoing crisis. And yet Bashar al-Assad doesn’t much care about what the international community wants—for him, the war has always been a fight for his personal survival. The kinds of exile offers that former dictators like Idi Amin, Zine Abedine Ben-Ali, and Mobutu Seko-Seso took do not appeal to Bashar al-Assad.

Without concerted, consistent, and unified international pressure to negotiate seriously, warring parties will not even think about a diplomatic process if it is not in their interest to do so. It may sound like common-sense, but it is worth repeating: unless all or most combatants believe they will gain more in fancy European conference rooms than on the battlefield, there is very little chance that an internationally-imposed peace process will produce anything. Much to the dismay of de Mistura and his UN colleagues, we have not reached that point yet.  

If Bashar al-Assad was resistant to a diplomatic solution when his forces were stretched, exhausted, and controlling a shrinking amount of territory, it defies logic that this same man would even consider a devolution of his power two months after his forces (mainly pro-government Shia militias and the Russian Air Force) accomplished their most significant battlefield achievement since the war began. With moderate rebel units driven out of East Aleppo and increasingly confined to Idlib province and areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border, Assad’s delegation is sitting in the room and likely looking at a bunch of opposition figures across the table as a spent force administering a shrinking patch of territory, with ever-diminishing leverage. Even a man as patient, talented, experienced, and optimistic as Staffan de Mistura conjuring up some transitional arrangement out of that scenario would be the equivalent of making chicken salad out of chicken feathers.

After six years of war, resulting in nearly five million refugees, six million displaced, entire cities razed to the ground, half a million people dead, Syria as a country bankrupt, and international law being made a mockery of on a daily basis, the only ones still deluding themselves about what is going on are the United Nations and the opposition’s diplomatic groups. Bashar al-Assad has made his peace with doing what he needs to do to survive, even if he cannot control the entire country. Likewise, his backers, Iran and Russia, have no qualms ensuring his success as long they get what they want: strengthened positions in the Levant and globally. Even the United States seems to have set itself to the policy of fighting only the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), and seems to be willing to bomb ISIS in ways that allow the regime to advance against the terrorist group—de facto coordination without direct communication.

If the fourth round of talks in Geneva are to be any less of a failure than the previous three rounds over the past three years, the international community cannot continue to escape the bare-bones reality that Bashar al-Assad—while he is certainly an Iranian puppet, a war criminal, a leader with zero vision, and a man who has effectively destroyed his own country in order to keep himself on top of the ruins—is in such an advantageous negotiating position that even considering the thought of a resignation at present would be incomprehensible and downright irrational. 

The international community, the United States, and the Syrian opposition presently has limited options. The Trump administration can either flood northern and southern Syria with weapons and provide the moderate opposition factions that are left with a reliable stream of ammunition, weapons systems, funding, and general military support in the hope that this begins to chip away at Assad’s battlefield momentum—a strategy that has dubious results this late in the game and lacks political support. Or it can realize that Security Council Resolution 2254 as it currently exists is no longer appealing to the Syrian regime, if it ever was.

Assad and his loyalists at the top echelons of the Syrian government, military, and intelligence services have absolutely zero incentive to talk about their resignations after a transitional period is over, much to the chagrin of the HNC, which continues to insist upon an Assad departure as a non-negotiable demand. We may have come to the unfortunate but unavoidable reality that the only way the Geneva process produces anything substantial is by allowing Bashar al-Assad the war criminal to participate in free and fair presidential elections that are overseen by international election observers. As anathema and enraging as that is, offering Assad that olive branch could nudge the Geneva negotiations along and transform Resolution 2254 from a stale document to a workable framework.  

Dangling any carrots in front of the Assad regime is beyond unappealing from a moral standpoint: it is morally repugnant, the kind of offer that many in Washington would blast as an appeasement to a dictator that has deliberately violated all international norms of decent behavior and humanity. The Syrian opposition would clearly resist the prospect as much as it could — their boycott of the Astana talks this week, which ended without any substantive progress, is as much a reflection on the rebel’s frustration with the predicament that they find themselves in as it is an indictment on the parties political courageousness. Yet those who want to stop the Syrian civil war from going on for another six, long years need to be practical: in the current circumstances, an interim government with regime and rebel representatives leading to an internationally-supervised election with no restrictions on who can run for higher office could be an opening to get out of this bloody morass.   

Daniel DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura addresses the Syrian invitees in the presence of members of the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group in the context of the resumption of intra-Syrian talks at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy