5 March 2017
UN-led prenegotiations for a settlement of the Syrian civil war tragically seem once more to be going nowhere.
The parties to these talks are the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and the main coalition of opposition groups, the Riyadh-based ‘High Negotiations Committee (HNC)’. The situation is dire even though an heroic attempt to talk up progress at the end of the last round of proximity talks in Geneva on 3 March was made by UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and they might well resume later in the month. Quite aside from the continuing absence of agreement on what role in future negotiations – if any – should be permitted to armed opposition groups outside the HNC, not least the Kurds, there is the enormous problem of what subjects should be discussed. Despite the special envoy’s claim that there is at last a ‘clear agenda’, with ‘counter-terrorism’ now up for negotiation, in fact there still does not seem to be anywhere near full agreement on what should be on the agenda or on what should come first. The Syrian regime wants measures against ‘terrorism’ to be not just on the agenda but at the top of it, and in any case controversially defines terrorism as the activity of all groups opposed to it; the opposition wants ‘political transition’ – code for the removal of Bashar – to be there instead. Squaring this circle prior to the commencement of substantive talks would be difficult enough even if one side did not think that it was winning the war and therefore had no need to negotiate at all, which of course – thanks largely to Russian military and Iranian intervention on his behalf – is now the attitude of Bashar al-Assad. This is the position despite the fact that Russia is reported to be leaning on its client to negotiate (perhaps in part to impress the easily impressed Donald Trump) and even to be trying to replace the UN as lead mediator; it is already promoting ‘parallel’ talks in Kazakhstan, albeit at the moment focussed chiefly, it seems, ‘only’ on military questions. Were Russia permitted to become the lead mediator, this might be no bad thing, in spite of Western and Israeli nervousness at the prospect. This is because the chief lesson of recent international mediation efforts in particularly bitter conflicts, as for example in southern Africa and the Balkans, is that they tend to be most successful when a major power grabs the reins from lesser parties offering their services, thereby giving it an enormous incentive to use its leverage to produce a settlement: it anticipates gaining all the credit for success, and fears receiving all the blame for failure. This role has hitherto been virtually monopolized by the United States, but with Washington now to all intents and purposes diplomatically headless, probably only Russia has the leverage and single-mindedness of purpose to pull off a Syria settlement. It should, therefore, be encouraged to manipulate the balance of power between the rivals so as to create a genuine diplomatic moment, and then helped to steer this dreadful war to a diplomatic end. The latter is perhaps too much to expect but spoilers should consider that success would also give Vladimir Putin a stake in the status quo.