Day: December 4, 2017
Stefano De Mistura, the UN’s negotiator for Syria, has been assiduously building “12 points” of commonality at his Geneva-based proximity negotiations with the Syrian government and opposition. A version of these got tweeted around late last week (apologies, I’ve forgotten by whom). I’ve been contemplating them over the weekend.
The 12 points are good. Titled “living intra-Syrian essential principles,” they project an end-state that includes a sovereign, democratic Syria including all its national territory, a non-sectarian state of citizens with equal rights and the usual array of freedoms, good governance and a unified army, rejection of terrorism, preservation of national heritage…. In other words, motherhood and apple pie.
Like many other diplomatic documents, the most significant part is what is missing: any transition in governing authority away from Bashar al Assad and any accountability for acts committed during the almost seven years of war. The Syrian opposition is no doubt insisting on that. The Syrian government representatives walked out over the weekend, presumably because they are unwilling to move in that direction.
The military situation inside Syria gives Assad the license to refuse. He does not control the entire country: Turkish troops control part of the northern border as well as part of Idlib province, Syrian opposition forces control part of the south along the Israeli and Jordanian borders while US-supported, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control much of the northeast. Islamic State still has some presence in the south and east. But Assad is increasingly secure in Damascus, protected by Iran and Russia and raining bombs on remaining pockets of resistance east of the capital and in other parts of the country.
With the US headed for the exit, the denouement in Syria depends heavily on what Iran and Russia are prepared to do. Iran will back Assad to the hilt: they own him much more now than they did seven years ago and stand close to gaining the much ballyhooed Shia “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Some see strains between Iran and Russia, which has less interest in Assad and more interest in ensuring that any possible successor is friendly to Moscow’s continued presence. Hence the Russian interest in at least parts of the less resistant parts of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition correctly understands that the UN’s motherhood and apple pie principles cannot be implemented with Assad still in place. Neither Iran nor Russia will be interested in a seriously democratic Syria, whose Sunni majority has manned most of the opposition. That is why Moscow and Tehran continue, with Ankara’s cooperation, to convene meetings in Astana and Sochi that are now clearly intended to displace the UN’s “Geneva process” in the search for a political solution.
The US has only a few cards left to play:
- it owns, with its SDF allies, a good part of Syria’s northeast, including the main Syrian oil producing facilities;
- it controls, with European allies, IMF and World Bank funding for reconstruction;
- it wields a veto over any new resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.
Somehow the US needs to use these cards to encourage a political evolution that would enable the 12 principles to be realized, eventually, in practice. That’s not going to be easy. You might even need a fully functional State Department to make it happen.