For most of the last few days, there was a question whether Syrian peace talks scheduled to begin tomorrow in Switzerland would happen at all. They will -- a last-minute invitation to Iran has been rescinded -- so now negotiators can move on to a more productive question: how the talks can succeed.
The answer, initially at least, is for the talks to focus on a less ambitious goal. Agreement to end the fighting in Syria or on a transitional government is too much to ask for. Better for participants to work out ways to bring humanitarian aid to the millions displaced by this civil war.
The difficulty with the so-called Geneva II process is that the Syrian government and its opponents have diametrically opposed assumptions about its purpose. For the rebels and their U.S. backers, it is about shaping a transitional government for Syria that excludes President Bashar al-Assad. For the regime and its Russian supporters, Geneva II is about creating international legitimacy for Assad to remain in power.
The release of a shocking and meticulously authenticated report on the systemic torture, starvation and executions of 11,000 people in Assad’s prisons serves as a reminder that this man belongs on trial for war crimes. Even so, the focus on trying to get the protagonists to start negotiating an unachievable political settlement risks turning Geneva II into a distraction that neither ends nor ameliorates Syria’s nightmare. The process is backward, and the flip-flop over Iran is a good example of why.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s rationale for inviting Iran made perfect sense: For the talks to make progress, a seat at the table is necessary for the most important actors in the conflict -- and that means at a minimum Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S. and, yes, Iran. Of course, Iran doesn’t accept the goal of a political transition and has troops on the ground to stop that from happening, so it’s understandable that the opposition Syrian National Coalition didn’t want to include Iranian diplomats in the discussion.
Yet what if the talks shifted from a political settlement to removing Hezbollah troops (which receive Iranian support) from Syria? Or securing a cease-fire in areas where they operate?
The talks in Montreux, which then move on to Geneva, should focus on ensuring that humanitarian aid can reach civilians, including some who have been deliberately cut off and starved by the regime’s forces, and the country’s estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people. Sometimes that means just persuading the regime’s forces to let aid through to areas under siege. Other times it will require local cease-fire agreements.
The most likely way to produce meaningful cease-fires, first local and later national, would be for the war’s regional sponsors to pressure their proxies into honoring deals on the ground. Lasting access and humanitarian corridors would eventually require support from the UN Security Council under a Chapter 7 resolution, overcoming Russia’s long-standing resistance as events change.
This is a more modest agenda. But it might bring about conditions that make a political settlement more feasible -- and, not incidentally, save lives. Such an agenda may have to start unofficially tomorrow, in the corridors and backrooms of Montreux. Sooner or later, though, it will have to become formal -- and Iran will need to participate.
The conflict in Syria is not just a dehumanizing, destabilizing war that may have already cost 136,000 lives, more than the final death toll from the war in Bosnia. It is also a sectarian proxy war that won’t end unless the powers enabling the fighting want it to.
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