Syria talks must narrow the goals to widen the goal posts

Europe can help set a forward-looking agenda by encouraging a pragmatic approach focussed on smaller, achievable aims. 

As the latest round of UN-sponsored Syria talks in Geneva concludes, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura can be credited with keeping the parties engaged (albeit indirectly) despite a spike in violence and little substantive progress.  Expectations are limited for the next round of talks, slated for late March, and only marginally less so for ceasefire negotiations in Astana, led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Breaking the cycle of stale-mated conclaves may hinge on further shifts on the ground, but Europe is not without tools to encourage an opening. At the moment, its best options are to advocate for pragmatism in the political track, and to wield its considerable weight in the humanitarian sphere to help stabilize the conflict.

The impasse in Geneva reflects current battlefield realities as well as long-standing, fundamental disagreements over the purpose of the talks.  The Assad regime, bolstered by its gains on the ground, is committed to military victory and emboldened in its repeated refusal to engage in Geneva on any issue other than its view of terrorism.  The opposition, meanwhile, despite facing strategic defeat, clings to calls for a political transition, even if many quietly concede that this is a vanishing possibility in the near term.

Greater hope is pinned on the ceasefire negotiations in Astana.  During the first two rounds (the third is planned for mid-March) discussions centered on solidifying the December 2016 cessation of hostilities brokered by Russia and Turkey.  Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran reportedly agreed on mechanisms for monitoring a ceasefire, though details are sketchy and implementation is unclear.  Yet, here, too, prospects for progress are uncertain.  Violations of the current cessation echo those that undermined U.S. and Russian efforts to quiet the conflict in 2016:  humanitarian access remains blocked, with no United Nations deliveries to besieged areas since the new year; agreement on counterterror action is hamstrung by debate over how to separate insurgents from extremists; and, perhaps most importantly, ongoing regime attacks appear designed to extend its control over areas of strategic value.

Last year’s cessation efforts collapsed amid the bombardment of East Aleppo, and resumed under very different conditions after the opposition’s withdrawal.  Now the regime is reinvigorating its efforts around Damascus and other strategic hotspots, including al-Waer in Homs. In their weakened position, armed opposition groups have little real choice but to keep pressing for a ceasefire.  When these areas inevitably fall, the international community will again be accused of fecklessness in the face of regime manipulation of the negotiations process to buy time for its forces to advance.

However, just as the surrender of East Aleppo generated renewed Turkish-Russian coordination, another inflection point may lay ahead.  Regime recapture of the last major opposition redoubts in central Syria, particularly the Damascus suburbs, would re-establish its control over core areas viewed as essential to regime survival.  Assad will want to press on further to Deraa, Idlib, and beyond, but it remains to be seen whether his backers will provide the necessary firepower.  Moscow, having assumed the lead mediating role in the conflict, may see utility in demonstrating that its military intervention bought it sufficient leverage to contain regime advances. Iran (arguably the essential element in altering the regime’s calculus) would also need to weigh the value of continuing to invest blood and treasure in pursuit of total military victory, and may conclude it is wiser to urge the regime to compromise.

Even if such an inflection point does arrive, the question remains whether the Geneva process is impossibly hamstrung by the magnitude of political change it aims for.  The talks are grounded in the 2012 Geneva Communique call for the establishment of a Transitional Governing Body (TGB).  UN Security Council Resolution 2254—which launched cessation efforts in 2016—reaffirms commitment to the Communique but subtly shifts focus from the TGB to the more flexible concept of “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance,” as well as emphasizing constitution drafting and UN-supervised elections.   The distinction appears lost on the Assad regime, which continues to stonewall any transition-related discussion.

Adding way stations along the path to the governance, constitutional, and electoral overhaul outlined in 2254 may help break the impasse.  Near-term emphasis could be on specific reforms—in the security sector, judiciary, and access to detainees—to build Syrian confidence in the potential for a broader political agreement and foster an environment in which the return of Syrians to their homes is conceivable.  Such an approach need not require abandoning the Geneva Communique or the commitment to accountability and justice.  In fact, reforms targeting key levers of regime control would be an equally heavy lift—though one less coloured by the six-year long attempt to dislodge Assad.

Achieving a sustainable ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian access is a necessary first step. But discussions in Astana are weighed down by the bigger picture political process. The focus needs to narrow: international attention should be placed on locking in a sustainable ceasefire, which by necessity will require some immediate compromises in terms of opposition autonomy to administer their own areas. Wider questions of governance – especially the transition question – need to be kicked down the road.

Europe can help set a forward-looking agenda by encouraging a pragmatic approach along the above lines.  Moreover, Europe wields concrete tools to help shape outcomes; it is a critical provider of the stabilization support necessary to promote security and essential services under a sustained ceasefire.  Nudging the parties toward realistic near – to mid-term approaches to stabilize the conflict offers the best prospects for meeting the urgent needs of Syrians and improving the odds of success on the political track.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Programme Director

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