Manaf Tlass’s declaration last week that the US and Russia can act together to find a solution for the crisis in Syria expressed an idea that has been building momentum for some time.
Russia’s tentative steps towards the Syrian opposition and its statements on the need for a political resolution have reinforced the sense that Russia is willing to play a more active role in aiding a peaceful settlement.
Should the US support this option — and there are indications of that given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments — there could be a real chance to stop the fighting.
Could such an externally-brokered settlement work?
First we must acknowledge that a political settlement might spare Syria further senseless devastation and loss of life. Two years on, it’s clear that the divisions between Syrians have hardened significantly and any hopes of changing the balance of popular support for either side have disappeared. These divisions aren’t exclusively formed along sectarian lines, but the rise of sectarianism is ominous and it creates the most rigid schisms.
Without this malleability, the ability to shift support and create new political realities in Syria, the situation will turn into a war of attrition. This is even likelier given the current balance of power and the inability of either the regime or the rebels to achieve a military victory. Even the potential fall of Damascus won’t end the war — the internecine conflict will spread wider. The destruction of Syria and the heavy death toll will continue unabated.
Establishing a political settlement now will prevent this from happening, but it will also require serious concessions. Those concessions shouldn’t be temporary arrangements to reflect the impasse on the ground, but a way for Syrians to preserve the unity of their country and transfer their difference to the political arena.
The realities on the ground make this seem like an unrealistic prospect, but with brave leadership it shouldn’t be impossible. Worryingly, good leadership has been largely absent so far.
Can the US and Russia then play a productive role in this process? I have my doubts about how close the two are to agreeing to support such a deal; but even if they were there are serious obstacles in the way. What both powers can primarily do is pressure the sides they support in order to force concessions and bring the regime and the opposition closer to a power-sharing deal. The question is to what extent can both sides be pressured and how much can they actually deliver.
If, and it’s a big if, the regime and the opposition are willing to come to the negotiation table, how much success can be expected at this stage? The US can exercise its influence on the opposition to extract concessions, but there is a natural ceiling for such concessions represented by the limited control that the opposition has over the multitude of armed groups operating in Syria. If the opposition offers too many concessions, it won’t be able to secure the support of those groups.
Aside from groups with nominal allegiance to the Syrian Opposition Council, there is also Jabhat al-Nusra, and similar factions, who will refuse to take part in any negotiations and aren’t likely to be invited at any rate. Both the US and Russia have their apprehensions about the ‘extremists’ in Syria, and any solution brokered by them is likely to include measures for neutralising such groups militarily. This will represent a real challenge for the opposition and it will be discredited with many Syrians should it agree to such a strategy.
The regime’s incentives for negotiating will have to factor in the possibility of neutralising Jabhat and company in return for a power-sharing deal with the opposition. (If the regime can overcome its natural aversion to relinquishing power.)
Indeed, Assad in his interview with The Sunday Times spoke of an existential threat to Syria: “We should be worrying about the majority of moderate Syrians who, if we do not fight this extremism, could become the minority — at which point Syria will cease to exist.”
That statement might be rhetorical, but the sentiments behind it are real. There is genuine fear of the rise of radical Islamist groups, and not just among the regime’s supporters. (Although Assad fails to mention the reason for this rise, or why would the majority of moderate Syrians become extremists, if not as a response to his violent suppression of the uprising).
Russian pressure could push the regime to make concessions with the more moderate opposition in an attempt to isolate the radical groups. But it’s unlikely for Russia to support the removal of Assad as part of this process, a position it has maintained publicly so far, and this will set another limit to any negotiation process. Indeed, Assad himself doesn’t seem close to entertaining that idea.
The main problem with a joint US-Russian initiative is that of any external mediation — it’s instrumental in nature.
Its aims would be to stop the fighting and contain the Islamist threat, not alter the political reality of Syria. It would involve backroom deals and compromises aimed at securing those aims, and leave Syrians feeling that their fate is being decided without them having a say in the process. That’s hardly likely to satisfy civilians who have sacrificed so much over the past two years.
The unavoidable conclusion is that Syrians can only depend on themselves. Sadly, the cost of that slow realisation is the increasing toll of destruction and loss of life that grows grimmer every day.