Vienna II: From Hope to Reality

In a November 11 interview with The Washington Post, British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond explained the psychology that underwrites the negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. “You get people together,” Hammond said, “you force them to make some forward movement, keeping them at it, keeping their noses to the grindstone, keep them in a locked room.” In short, you try to the move the process far enough along to turn irreconcilable adversaries into constructive negotiating partners—hoping that with enough time and determination, countries that differ on how to resolve the Syrian conflict will realize that compromising is the only way forward.

Hammond’s explanation is based entirely on hope. Crafting a diplomatic settlement to a civil war is hard under normal circumstances, but in Syria, it is a thankless task that is far more likely to end in failure. The reasons are simple: Bashar al-Assad refuses to step down; the Syrian opposition and its Gulf supporters refuse to accept any formula that allows Assad to stay even temporarily; Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting their own war against each other through Syrians; and Russia and Iran have shown no willingness to pressure the Assad regime to stop its civilian-cleansing campaign.

Secretary of State John Kerry and others interested in an immediate political solution, amongst them the European and Gulf countries, European Union, and United Nations, will try to convince those in Assad’s corner — most prominently Russia and Iran — that pushing Assad aside in favor of a fresh government elected by the Syrian people is a much better way to defend their interests than continuing to pour money and diplomatic capital into Assad’s war-chest. Russia and Iran have demonstrated that both will continue to back Assad’s brutal tactics to retain their influence in Syria. Through unconditional assistance to Assad, They have created a situation whereby the humanitarian situation continues to degenerate while ISIL’s recruitment power continues to shine. If Moscow and Tehran are unwilling to change their calculus in Vienna this weekend, the entire diplomatic process will result in a continuation of the war and the very real prospect that Syria as a unitary state is no longer possible.

The Vienna Communiqué got the negotiation process started, but the second round this weekend will need to achieve real momentum. There are three major hurdles the represented parties must agree on to move forward.

Who will actually participate in the opposition delegation? Outside of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as a whole, we do not know which figures will represent the political opposition in future discussions with the Assad regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is hoping that the outside stakeholders will hand in their own list of names of who should be included in the political process and who should be kept out and labeled as terrorist organizations. With competing priorities dividing the international powers, it will be difficult to come to a consensus on the final list of opposition representatives. Even among those supporting the opposition there are differences. Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Ahrar al-Sham be included may not sit well with Washington, considering that the organization has cooperated with Jabhat al-Nusra on the battlefield before. Likewise, Russia could hesitate to include groups such as Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya and Tajamu al-Izza because they threaten Assad’s strongholds in north-western Syria, leading Russia to bomb them in defense of Assad. In short: if the sides cannot come to an agreement on who will compose the opposition team, the talks will not even get to the main event.

Will Russia’s peace plan go anywhere? Hoping to strengthen its position vis-à-vis its opponents, Russia has produced its own plan for a political transition. Moscow’s roadmap is very different from Washington’s idea, and puts Washington in a tricky situation because the United States and its allies have not come up with a counterproposal of their own. According to leaked portions of Russia’s plan released to the media, Russia is aiming for an eighteen-month transition period with an interim unity government administering the country, a constitutional reform committee writing a new document to be voted on in a referendum, and a presidential election to be held at the end. The document does not mention the role Bashar al-Assad would play during or after transition period. The plan is a nonstarter for the SNC, who’s leaders consider the Russian initiative as an attempt to allow Assad to increase his legitimacy through new elections, and regime loyalists who view Assad as the legitimately elected president whose term ends in 2021. The United States, Europe, and Gulf countries will try to table Russia’s proposal and ensure it does not see the light of day — something that could be hard if the participants in Vienna are unable to come to an agreement on who will participate in an interim national unity government..

How many more civilians will Assad kill? Bashar al-Assad not only uses indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas as a diplomatic card when discussions over Syria’s fate are going in a direction that he wants to avoid. The bombardment of civilian neighborhoods in opposition-controlled territory will poison any sign of good-will that the diplomats in Vienna will try to generate this weekend. But more importantly, more civilian casualties at the hands of the regime will most likely convince representatives of the SNC that talking with a dictator who continues slaughtering civilians is a waste of time.

During the January-February 2014 talks in Geneva, the Assad regime killed hundreds of civilians in barrel bomb attacks in Aleppo and Damascus at the same exact time that the discussions were ongoing. Between October 31, 2013 and February 20, 2014 (five days after the Geneva talks broke down), Human Rights Watch discovered 340 impact sites from regime air attacks in Aleppo alone. Assad has demonstrated that he is more than happy to continue pummeling civilians even when he is open to exploring diplomacy. Indeed, on the same day that the Vienna Communiqué was signed, regime missiles slammed into a Douma marketplace and killed at least 89 people. This was not by accident—Assad is calculating that mass casualty events like the Douma episode will force opposition representatives to pull from the talks.

The Vienna Communiqué was a warm-up round needed to get talks started. In this next round, questions surrounding who will represent the Syrian opposition and how the political transition will play out need some level of agreement before negotiations can proceed any further. After the first meeting took place, Secretary Kerry remarked that “the diplomatic situation is…more promising than it has been in some time because all of the stakeholders came to this table.”  It is those stakeholders, however, that will need to drop the stubbornness if the Vienna dialogue is to succeed where other international peace conferences have failed. The cost of failure is an increasingly bloody civil war, more Syrians giving up and seeking refuge in Europe, and terrorist groups getting stronger, and the Syria problem becoming a cancer in the region.

Dan 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: Reuters. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L), German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (2nd L), UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (7th L), US Secretary of State John Kerry (5th R), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (4th R), Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Baodong (2nd R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) wait before a meeting with 17 nations, the European Union and United Nations at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, October 30, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said on Friday he hoped progress could be made at international talks in Vienna aimed at finding a political solution to Syria's four-year-old civil war but it would be very difficult. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool)