Vienna II: Civilian Protection Lite

The countries and organizations attending the second round of Syria talks in Vienna, now calling themselves the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), gave short shrift in their written statement to those Syrians most in need of their support: the victims—past, present, and future—of the Assad regime’s relentless program of mass homicide. Buried in a pile of prose were the following words, “The ISSG also reaffirmed the devastating effects of the use of indiscriminate weapons on the civilian population…. The ISSG agreed to press the parties to end immediately any use of such indiscriminate weapons.” And in the post-conference press conference the issue of civilian protection was raised by no one, including the press.

Indeed, even this seemingly grudging reference to civilian slaughter was gutted of meaning. Those present, “reaffirmed the devastating effects?” The devastating effects of explosive blast, red hot liquids, chlorine, and steel shards on human beings need no confirmation by the high and mighty of international diplomacy, those who cannot even bring themselves to reaffirm the inadmissibility of deliberately targeting civilians. Yes, barrel bombs and the like have devastating effects: physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Those purporting to support Syrians need not reaffirm the effects. Their duty is to stop the carnage.

And why the emphasis on “indiscriminate weapons?” The real problem is twofold: indiscriminate targeting when regime bombers persuade themselves that somewhere down below there are armed rebels moving about; and deliberate targeting of civilians through a variety of weapons, which is aimed at preventing alternate governance from taking hold in rebel-held areas. Weaponry much more discriminating than barrel bombs has been used both indiscriminately and deliberately. It is the deliberate subjecting of civilians to murder and mayhem—irrespective of the weaponry employed—that is the issue.

By focusing on “indiscriminate weapons” the ISSG statement may in fact encourage Russia and Iran to believe that they need only get their client to stop using barrel bombs—weapons that Bashar al-Assad denies even having. Assad’s use of these improvised devices has been dictated by their horrific, devastating effects—effects obligingly reaffirmed by those willing to sign on to the ISSG statement—and by reported shortages in conventional ordnance. Russia and Iran may be free to tell their client, “Look, let’s get everyone off our backs on this civilian protection business. You stop the barrel bombs and we’ll give you whatever you need in ‘discriminate weapons’ to keep hammering rebel-held areas. All our opponents are interested in are barrel bombs! We can help you do what you did when you gave up the chemicals: double down on everything else!”

Apparently the broad question of civilian protection—aside from “indiscriminate weapons” and ensuring “expeditious humanitarian access throughout the territory of Syria”—is being subsumed under the general rubric of a ceasefire. A “nationwide ceasefire” would “come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards the transition under UN auspices on the basis of the Geneva Communique.” The target date for negotiations to begin is January 1, 2016, which is presumably the first day of a ceasefire.

If, however, attacks on civilians—both indiscriminate and targeted—are to be subsumed under ceasefire arrangements, who is it on the receiving end of regime atrocities that is supposed to stop firing? People lined up for bread at a bakery? Children in makeshift schools? Patients being treated in primitive hospitals? White Helmet civil defense personnel desperately digging through the rubble for survivors? Who is it exactly on the civilian side of this equation that will take an action responsive and corresponding to the end of barrel bombing, gravity bombing, artillery shelling, and missile firing? Of what would that action consist? Saying “thank you Bashar?”

There is nothing stopping the Assad regime right now from desisting in mass casualty assaults on civilian residential areas. Ceasefires take place between combatants. War crimes and crimes against humanity take place when civilians are set upon by mass murderers, even those coming in the form of a “government” supported by Russia and Iran and still, very sadly, recognized by the United States.

Other aspects of the statement are interesting. One perhaps unintended consequence of properly declaring that no ceasefire will be extended to any terrorist organization could be to authorize Russia to continue military strikes on non-Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Da’esh) targets of its choice on the basis of its declaration that Nusra Front personnel were somewhere in the area. For the purposes of the ISSG, that which was once labeled by a senior American official as the “A-Team of international terrorism”—Hezbollah—is not a terrorist organization. Neither is the leading practitioner of terrorism in Syria—the Assad regime. Jordan has been given the task of consulting with ISSG members to see if others beyond ISIL and the Nusra Front deserve the terrorist designation. But according to the rules of this Vienna process only armed opponents of the Assad regime may be nominated for the honor.

With a target date of January 1st set for formal Syrian negotiations, United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has been given the task of bringing together, “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians, who will decide their negotiating representatives and define their negotiating positions, so as to enable the political process to begin.”

All of the Syrian participants in this cat-herding exercise must agree to “guiding principles” dictated by the participants of the first Vienna meeting, “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character; to ensure that State institutions stay intact; and to protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination.”

A target of six months from January 1st is set for establishing “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance.” A new constitution would then be debated and drafted, with “free and fair elections” supervised by the United Nations to take place by a target date of mid-2017. What this will require, of course, is the clearing of ISIL from Syria by that date.

The issue of Assad remains unsettled. On its face the mutual consent clause of the 2012 Geneva Final Communique enables the opposition to block any Assad role in Syria’s transitional governing body. This is why the Syrian government—such as it is—has never accepted Geneva. Will Russia and Iran now require it to do so and negotiate in accordance with the Geneva blueprint? No they will not. For Russia, the Vienna process buys time—perhaps not enough—for its military (in conjunction with Iran) to help the regime finish off all non-ISIL armed groups. Presenting Barack Obama (or his successor) with the binary Assad-ISIL choice remains Vladimir Putin’s ideal scenario. Iran will want Bashar in the saddle for as long as it wants Hezbollah dominating Lebanon and threatening Israel.

If Russia and Iran were interested in genuine political transition consistent with Geneva and ISSG principles, they would first require their client to lift sieges designed to produce starvation and disease and to stop conducting mass casualty operations in civilian residential neighborhoods. The real test of this Vienna-ISSG process is whether they do it now. Others, who may want the process for its own time-buying, decision-avoidance sake, know that the ongoing slaughter of civilians empties the country, aids ISIL, and blocks meaningful dialogue. Yet for their own reasons they too may wish, in the end, to do nothing about it. For Vienna to succeed civilian protection must be job one.

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

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Image: (Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Ammunition rigged for an IED discovered by Iraqi police in Baghdad in November 2005.)