Syria Negotiations Are Beyond Bleak
As the war in Syria winds down, negotiations began last week to attempt to end the war outright. Stefan de Misrata, the chief UN negotiator, convened what will be the eighth round of talks in Geneva. Previous rounds have yielded few results, as warring sides refused to even come to the table. Opposition rebel groups have insisted that there can be no resolution without the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad.
There is little chance of this happening. On Friday, the government delegation walked out of talks over the opposition’s refusal to drop its insistence on Assad’s removal. While Mr. de Misrata has said that negotiations will continue until December 15th, focusing on drafting a new constitution and a plan for elections, no solution will be viable without the other side returning.
As government forces shore up control of most of their territory, and the last remaining remnants of Islamic State are destroyed, Assad will be all the more intractable to retain his position. In his mind, this war was one for his own survival, and he has just about won it. With Russian help, government forces have been stepping up attacks to hammer this point home.
There has been a nominal step in the right direction already, with an agreement for a ceasefire in the contested Eastern Ghouta region. Even this is no guarantee, as previous attempts to establish no conflict zones have foundered quickly.
The two sides will be negotiating under a framework agreed upon by the UN Security Council. The Council adopted Resolution 2254, which calls for an end to violence and a political transition to resolve the war. This resolution was reaffirmed by Presidents Trump and Putin at their joint meeting in Vietnam several weeks ago. Aside from the US and Russia, Iran (another major Assad government supporter) and Turkey (a backer of the opposition) will also be major players in talks. Israel and Saudi Arabia will also have a say.
Russia has the upper hand at the table. Their military support, along with Iran’s, has kept Assad in power, and Mr. Putin will be keen to reap the fruits of his “victory.” Putin entered the war under the guise of fighting terrorism, but in reality, he wanted to boost his image, and nationalist sentiment, back home. He will, therefore, want to ensure the draw-down maintains the look of victory. He will also be keen to secure the military base in the port of Tartus, which he has signed an agreement with Mr. Assad to expand into a full naval base.
Russia has already set an agenda for a political transition on its own. Last week, Mr. Putin met with Mr. Assad in Sochi, where he discussed the military drawdown of the war. He then met with the leaders from Turkey and Iran, in order draw up post-war plans. Mr. Putin would like to stabilize Syria by shoring up allies of Mr. Assad and marginalize his fiercest opposition. He has maintained that a new constitution and election should both be pursued, but believes Mr. Assad should remain and stand for reelection. The question of the how election will be held, and whether Syrian refugees will be included in it, is unclear. Given Mr. Putin’s take on “elections” in his country, there is not much hope the elections will be free and fair if he has his way.
Iran is happy to go along with Russia’s plans. They have already pledged financial assistance in Syria’s reconstruction. Their interest in keeping Assad in power is perhaps more geopolitical than Russia’s. In addition to its support for Shia groups in Iraq, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is seeking to create an area of influence stretching from its borders to the Mediterranean (see map), complete with a physical road to be used for commercial purposes.
Iran’s ambitions alarm both Israel and Saudi Arabia greatly. The arc they seek to build drives a wedge down the middle of the Middle East, cornering Israel and cutting Saudi Arabia off from its other allies and militias. Israel has succeeded in getting Iranian-supported militias out of areas bordering their territories, but that may be all they are able to do. Both countries have more or less given up any promise of Assad being removed from power.
Turkey, once one of the first countries to call for his removal, similarly does not harbor any illusions about a change in power. Though they still support opposition groups, they do so in order to destroy the Islamic State and limit the influence of Syrian Kurdish forces, who they fear will bolster Kurdish separatists movements in their own country. They seem to be getting all they have asked for. President Trump acquiesced to limiting military support for the Kurds, in a baffling diplomatic move devoid of both moral integrity and common sense.
Despite this, and Russia’s strong position, the West can still sway talks. The opposition forces they support still control large swathes of eastern Syria. The US has anywhere from 500 to more than 1,700 troops (unclear because the Pentagon will not officially disclose numbers.) No ceasefire will be able to be enforced without American say so.
Moreover, Russia needs the US and other Western countries to be on board for its reconstruction plans. Building Syria back will be an arduous and costly task. The cost of rebuilding infrastructure; returning all facets of society to their previous state; and, eventually, reintegrating refugees; will easily number into the hundreds of billions. These are sums that Russia’s creaking economy will not be able to afford. Mr. Putin also has little interest in leading these efforts, mindful of the pains the US has had doing this in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Russian firms will be keen to line up lucrative rebuilding contracts in Syria, he needs the UN to implement a comprehensive strategy.
The West should leverage this to demand the true democratic transition Syria deserves. If Western countries will be picking up the tab on rebuilding Syria (a likelihood given the eagerness to limit migration from the region), they should not be doing so to bolster a murderous dictator and a Russian puppet state. A comprehensive aid framework for rebuilding should be created, contingent on a concrete timeline for free and fair elections, which should include Syrian refugees (though this would be difficult to pull off.)
Mr. Putin will be keen to collect what he believes are his just spoils of war. The people of Syria, after more than six years of war, deserve better.