FPI Bulletin: Syrian Peace Talks Suspended

February 3, 2016

The Syrian peace talks, which the United Nations suspended today until February 25, represent the triumph of diplomatic affectation over effective diplomacy — and likely will end with the continuation, if not the exacerbation, of a bloody status quo. The Obama administration’s approach to negotiations effectively enshrines the Assad regime’s negotiating position as a baseline for the talks, thereby inverting the requirements for any successful political resolution. By accepting the Russian and Iranian position that Bashar Assad can remain in power and failing to offer meaningful military support for the Syrian opposition, the United States has ensured that any negotiated agreement ultimately favors the interests of Damascus and its allies.

The Geneva “proximity talks” mark the third international effort since 2012 to negotiate the conclusion of Syria’s civil war, but the Obama administration has failed to learn the lessons of the previous abortive efforts. First, the White House erroneously believes that a diplomatic breakthrough is possible without a complementary campaign to create facts on the ground that would generate the preconditions for its success. Second, it mistakenly assumes that the United States, Iran and Russia share common interests in Syria and Iraq that could form the basis of a mutually beneficial negotiation.

Thus, on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the talks as the only way to end the war. “While battlefield dynamics can affect negotiating leverage, there is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “Without negotiations, the bloodshed will drag on until the last city is reduced to rubble and virtually every home, every form of infrastructure, and every semblance of civilization is destroyed.” He added: “We have seen through years of savage fighting what the absence of serious negotiation yields. So I urge all parties to seize this opportunity and go forward with the best interests of their country in mind.”

Kerry is mistaken. If Damascus and its patrons constitute the only parties generating leverage by exploiting battlefield dynamics, a good deal for the Syrian opposition remains impossible. Without stronger military steps to defeat the Islamic State, weaken the Assad regime, and undermine Russian and Iranian influence in the region, the United States lacks the leverage to incentivize Damascus, Moscow and Tehran to offer concessions at the negotiating table. Perhaps more troublingly, the “best interests” of Syria, Russia and Iran — as their respective regimes understand them — hardly align with the best interests of the United States and the Syrian people.

Whereas Washington and the moderate Syrian opposition aim to end a civil war that has claimed more than 250,000 lives, Tehran seeks the survival of the Assad regime, its foremost regional client, and the defeat of the Islamic State in order to facilitate its drive for regional hegemony. The Kremlin, for its part, wishes to preserve Assad’s grip on power in order to expand its influence in the Middle East at America’s expense as the Obama administration and its Western allies work to isolate Moscow for subjugating its neighbors.

The Obama administration has refused to acknowledge this reality due in part to its fear that any dispute with Iran would undermine the Islamist regime’s commitment to the July 2015 nuclear agreement. This concern motivated the reversal of America’s earlier position that Assad must leave power as part of any comprehensive solution — and led the Syrian opposition to become deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions. “The Americans have to realize they have a credibility problem,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “Words don’t mean much. What are the Americans doing on the ground to help put pressure on both sides to help make concessions? That’s what matters. It is just hot air from Washington to talk about the need for a political deal without actions taken to make it happen.”

Thus, under the present circumstances, the Syrian peace talks ultimately serve to advance the interests of Damascus and its supporters. In the days preceding the parley, the Syrian regime openly stated that it would make no concessions during the negotiations. Its refusal to halt air strikes and sieges of cities held by rebel forces appeared to reinforce this pronouncement, fueling the Syria’s opposition’s initial hesitation to join the talks, which it ultimately reversed in the face of intense U.S. and international pressure. After the parties convened in Geneva on Friday, Assad’s bloodletting continued without interruption, including mass starvation in Madaya, a regime offensive in the northern Aleppo area, the exodus of 3,500 Syrians from the Latakia province to escape advancing Assad forces, and a siege of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, which cut off 45,000 more people from humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, an Islamic State suicide attack on Sunday in Damascus killed more than 70.

Making matters worse, Russia has continued its airstrikes against rebel-held areas even as it simultaneously purports to support the diplomatic process. “Everything we are doing is being undermined by the Russians,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. “The Russians say let’s talk, and then they talk and they talk and they talk. The problem with the Russians is while they are talking they are bombing, and they are supporting Assad.” Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the leader of the Syrian opposition’s delegation to the talks, echoed these sentiments. Assad “believes in military solutions only — he does not want a political process,” he said. “Neither does Russia. All they want is a military resolution. That’s why they come to such peace talks, in order to make them fail.” However, by feigning support for such talks, Damascus and its patrons have entangled the White House in a process that consumes all of its energy while the onslaught on the opposition continues.

In this context, the United States cannot serve as a neutral mediator, but must make clear that it seeks Assad’s removal from power and the retreat of Tehran and Moscow from the region. As Frederic C. Hof, a former special advisor for transition in Syria, noted, “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.” Instead, the White House should work with its European and Sunni Arab allies to assemble a significant ground force that can defeat the Islamic State and help strengthen moderate Syrian forces as it fights to replace the Assad regime. The administration should also make clear that it will not support the resumption of talks on February 25 unless Russia and Iran halt their aggression against Syrian populations and allow the entry of humanitarian aid.

Unfortunately, Secretary Kerry has effectively declined to take sides, calling on the parties “to negotiate in good faith,” and argued that the peace talks can produce a “credible political process” that would offer the Syrian people a “real choice” about its future. In reality, the talks constrain such a choice by empowering the very parties most responsible for suppressing it and by legitimizing their role as dominant regional powers. As Secretary Kerry might say, years of savage fighting have demonstrated what the absence of U.S. leadership yields; the White House must now seize the opportunity to restore it.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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