Seeking to disrupt the lethal cycle of foreign intervention and military escalation in Syria, a group of 55 House Democrats recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama, calling for a change in U.S. policy.
“[I]t is time to devote ourselves to a negotiated peace, and work with allies, including surrounding Arab states that have a vested interest in the security and stability of the region,” they wrote. “Convening international negotiations to end the Syria conflict would be in the best interests of U.S. and global security, and is also, more importantly, a moral imperative.”
No one — except neoconservative die-hards who view diplomacy as the last refuge of wimps — can argue with their sentiment. But previous failed attempts to promote peace negotiations suggest that Syrian rebels want to talk only about the terms of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s surrender — or they won’t talk at all. Unless their foreign backers start turning the screws on these clients, the key players may simply refuse to sit down at the peace table.
The first Geneva conference on Syria was initiated by the United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan in April 2012. Although the great-power participants agreed on the usual niceties — a transitional government, participation of all groups in a meaningful national dialogue, free elections, etc. — the process foundered quickly when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Assad could not participate in the transition government. In August 2011, President Obama had rashly demanded that Assad step down as a precondition for political change in Syria.
Who’s to Blame?
Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari later blamed the United States, Britain and France for derailing a huge opportunity for peace. Norwegian General Robert Mood, who led a military observer mission into Syria that spring to monitor an abortive cease-fire, said after the breakdown of Geneva I, “it would have been possible to lead Syria through a transition supported by a united Security Council with Assad as part of the transition. . . . The insistence on the removal of President Assad as a start of the process led them into a corner where the strategic picture gave them no way out whatsoever.”
Contrary to the caricature presented in many Western media, the Russians did not then or later insist that Assad remain in power.
Rather, as President Vladimir Putin emphasized in late 2012, Russia’s “position is not for the retention of Assad and his regime in power at any cost but that the people in the beginning would come to an agreement on how they would live in the future, how their safety and participation in ruling the state would be provided for, and then start changing the current state of affairs in accordance with these agreements, and not vice versa.”
Or as two former members of the State Department’s policy planning staff put it, “For Russia, the Geneva process is about achieving a political settlement in Syria, not about great powers negotiating the end of the Assad regime. . . . Russia’s primary objective in Syria is not to provide support for Assad but rather to avoid another Western-backed effort at coercive regime change, and all of Russia’s actions are consistent with that objective. . . .
“Better US-Russian cooperation on Syria depends on demonstrating to Moscow that Assad and his cronies — rather than the opposition, US policy, or other states in the region — are the main obstacle to a settlement and to stability in Syria, as the US has long argued. That requires pushing ahead with a good-faith effort at a political settlement.”
Chances for peace were set back in spring 2013, however, when the political leader of the non-Islamist opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, resigned after failing to get support for a mediated end to the conflict. His interim successor, a Syrian-American named Ghassan Hitto, reportedly enjoyed strong backing from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and “distanced himself from Al-Khatib’s willingness to negotiate with elements of the Assad regime in a bid to bring an end to the civil war.” Secretary of State John Kerry, who had replaced Secretary Clinton, was reported to be “sanguine at the news of the resignation.”
In May 2013, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to give peace another chance and try to bring the government and opposition to the negotiating table. This time, significantly, Kerry did not demand that Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Then came the huge diversionary controversy over Syrian chemical weapons, with the White House claiming that the Assad regime had crossed the “red line.” Instead of peace, a vast escalation of the war loomed, until Russia helped broker Syria’s agreement to destroy all of its chemical weapons stocks.
Peace efforts suffered another setback that fall when Syrian opposition forces and their backers in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States balked after the UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Bahimi, said that Iran should be part of any settlement talks.
The Beirut Daily Star reported that “Many of Syria’s main rebel brigades … rejected any negotiations not based on Assad’s removal and said they would charge anyone who attended them with treason.” A coalition of 19 Syrian Islamist groups called attempts to restart the Geneva talks “just another part of the conspiracy to throw our revolution off track and to abort it.”
In November 2013, under pressure from Washington and London, the main Syrian exile opposition group voted to attend a new round of peace talks — but only if Assad and others with “blood on their hands” were guaranteed to have “no role” in a transition government or Syria’s future — a non-starter.
The pro-Western National Coalition finally yielded and reluctantly agreed in January 2014 to join a new round of talks, but the more powerful Islamist rebel alliance continued to reject them. The negotiations quickly foundered, with Western powers blaming Damascus for refusing to get serious about a transition government, and Syria’s government insisting that it was committed to “stopping the bloodshed.”
The Ukraine Putsch
Soon, the Western-supported putsch against the Russian-backed government of the Ukraine caused a dramatic setback in U.S.-Russian relations, putting all progress in Syria on hold. Seeking to appease neoconservative critics who demanded even tougher interventions in both theaters, President Obama requested huge new sums of money to arm and train Syria’s rebels — and to beef up the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
In January 2015, Kerry finally began warming again to multilateral negotiations, with Russia’s participation. CIA Director John Brennan made the startling announcement that “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.”
The French, longtime hardliners against Assad, also came around. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a radio station, “The political solution will of course include some elements of the regime because we don’t want to see the pillars of the state fall apart. We would end up with a situation like Iraq.”
These were huge changes in the stance of Western interventionist powers, aligning them closely to Russia’s longstanding position based on the original Geneva principles. But of course these changes came too late. Aside from some modest-sized regions held by Kurdish forces (and thus opposed by Turkey), the Syrian opposition today is dominated by Islamic State and by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Forcing Russia’s Hand
Continuing military gains by those extreme Islamist forces prompted Putin’s decision to send additional military aid to Damascus and begin for the first time bombing targets in Syria. As usual, domestic U.S. politics forced a reframing of the Syrian issue back into Cold War-era stereotypes as a contest between the United States and Russia. And the French have once again reverted to their intransigent position that “there can be no transition without [Assad’s] departure,” in the words of President Francois Hollande.
Most important, some 75 military factions operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army this month reached an unprecedented political consensus: They rejected plans for a peaceful transition of power put forth by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. Their political stance confirms that the FSA has become an ally, if not a wholly owned tool, of the Nusra Front.
Pursuing peace remains a worthy — indeed, the only sensible — goal of U.S. foreign policy in Syria. No one should be surprised, however, if Washington’s embrace of that goal comes too late. By pursuing regime change so long and so adamantly, the United States, Western Europe and various Arab powers fostered the rise of the radical Islamist opposition, which has absolutely no interest in peace. Foreign leaders can meet all they want in Geneva, Moscow, or wherever, but facts on the ground will determine the political future of Syria.
If there is to be any hope of an outcome short of a bloodthirsty Islamist victory, it will require a total commitment by foreign powers to halt their supply of money and arms to opposition forces that, for now at least, reject participation in the peace process.