US, Russia should agree on a 'secular' Syria

18 february 2014

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The diplomatic epic aimed at stopping the Syrian civil war has reached a critical point.

The diplomatic epic aimed at stopping the Syrian civil war has reached a critical point. The wave of expectations that gave rise to the chemical weapons removal program and Geneva II has faded away. A political dead end is now being discussed; last autumn’s rhetoric can be heard.

US President Barack Obama has reminded us that a military strike is still possible. Saudi Arabia has promised to supply the opposition with MANPADs. There is yet another conflict of resolutions within the UN Security Council. The split is along the same line: Western countries are determined to hold Bashar al-Assad liable for the continuing clashes, while Russia and China deny it and call for effective measures against the terrorists (read: the opposition). Lakhdar Brahimi, the official intermediary at the talks, who plies a course between the delegations in Geneva, is starting to lose his patience. This is in spite of the fact that his nerves have, up till now, proven stronger than those of his successor Kofi Annan’s. The news from the Swiss diplomatic front has indeed been sad.

Is there no longer a chance of success?

Let us try and understand calmly.

What's currently going on, by itself, is already notably greater than what we could have expected six months ago. In spite of the choir of skeptics who say this is not technically doable, chemical weapons are being removed after all. Slowly, with moans and groans, but being removed nevertheless. Geneva II has been launched, even if with a composition far from the desired one and without any obvious shifts so far. However, it takes place against a background of internecine bloodshed, alongside sharp confrontations between external players that were unimaginable a couple of months ago. Thus, there are no reasons for wringing hands and shouting, “All is lost!”

At the same time, a crisis of the diplomatic process is obvious. The impulse given by last September’s Russian initiative is no longer enough to facilitate further changes. Another similar impulse is needed, one that would not just boost the talks, but that would bring a new schema into them.

The entire weight of the reconciliation is now resting on diplomats’ shoulders. They are compelled to look for a way of bringing closer the diametrically counterpoised positions of the parties. For now this has been done by using purely technical gimmicks — by devising language that the opposing groups could agree to. This is a natural method: under the existing level of mutual rejection, what is needed first and foremost are measures aimed at strengthening (and in this case, rather, at the creation) of trust. Little “success stories” show that in principle a result can be achieved. This is necessary technical work, but to seriously advance is only possible on the political level.

Whatever may have been at the sources of the conflict, the Syrian collision has long become a determinant for all large-scale regional politics. The nature of the balance (or imbalance) throughout the Near East depends on what will take place in Syria. And although the thesis that it is ultimately only the Syrians themselves who can come to an agreement on anything is true, it is clear that no compromise will take place without an agreement by external forces.

The main issue is Syria’s future setup: a new state model, rather than the composition of a transitional government, as the opposition insists. It is precisely this model that must be at the center of the talks in Geneva. If it is only about a switch of power (Assad must leave and make way for others), it's doomed: Damascus does not intend to, and will not, discuss capitulation. All the more so, as the regime, if anything, has not been losing in the battlefield. Meanwhile, a secular Syria, in which the rights of all population groups are secured by legal and political meals, can be a common aim of the “health” of the opposition and of the government. Clearly, the radical Islamists, who are fighting for the establishment of a religious state, will not be satisfied with such a prospect, but they in any case will not be satisfied with anything other than their own unconditional victory.

For a coalition of “healthy forces” to be formed in Syria, it has to first emerge outside of it. The concept of a secular country wherein the rights of populations of different ethnic and religious origins are respected cannot but join Russia and the United States together, the two “main oarsman” of the peace process. Moscow has long been speaking about the dangers that Syria’s Islamization would be fraught with, while Washington, albeit not right away, has started acknowledging, through high-ranked retirees, that the most probable scenarios of the country’s post-Assad condition constitute an even greater danger to the United States’ national security than that of the current state of affairs.

Things are more complicated with the neighbors. Saudi Arabia and Iran are more concerned with their own positions than with stability in Syria. Therefore, the strengthening of the groups and communities in this country that are loyal to them is seen by Riyadh and Tehran as a more urgent task than establishing an internal balance of interests. What's primarily needed is stimuli toward a compromise for these states and guarantees that their interests will be taken into account in the future Syrian model.

Finally, there are countries that are interested in minimizing the negative impact of the events in Syria on their internal situation and on the situation in the region as a whole. They are Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The extent of their implication in Syria’s internal affairs varies from active involvement (Ankara and Beirut) to quite neutral attitudes (Cairo). These states, especially those further away, such as Jordan and Egypt, could potentially form the core of “stabilizers” who are able to promote an atmosphere of compromise.

But in any case, rumors have recently appeared that alongside Geneva II another consultation format may emerge, which would represent external states, including Iran that has been excluded from the Geneva process. This gives hope for more active work on the regional plane. A deal between Near Eastern countries will make progress at the intra-Syrian talks significantly easier. However, for this to be made possible the main patrons, Russia and the United States, must prove to the participating states, primarily Iran and Saudi Arabia, that the latters’ interests can be secured by guarantees of the stability of the intra-Syrian agreement, including external guarantees.

The main burden is now placed on Moscow and Washington. Only their tireless efforts can save the Syrian reconciliation process. They must work actively with their “clients” by explaining to both the opposition and to Damascus that no one’s complete “victory” is possible and that continued bloodshed would destroy precisely their chances for the future. Ultimately, the external world can also live with continuing in-fighting in Syria, just as everyone got used to the 15-year civil war in Lebanon in the past.

It's doubtful that the threats heard from Washington, such as Obama’s words that a military solution continues to be possible, will help the matter. Damascus sees them as the United States' latent aggressiveness, but they are not afraid. They act based on the premise that if the United States wanted to strike Assad they would have done it last September. This is when there was at least some fervor and a good pretext. They decided not to run the risk even then. This euphoria cannot be revived today. Thus, Obama’s threats are an element of the diplomatic process, as it has always been understood by the Americans: a Colt (handgun) must always be lying on the table lest the others think that it's not there. However, many in the region doubt the United States' ability to fire it.

The Syrian peace process will continue because no one knows what to do otherwise. The only alternative is a sharp escalation of the war and of the region collapsing into complete chaos; this does not hold out any benefits to anyone. Thus, there is nothing else to be done: big 21st century diplomacy is being born in and around Geneva, and its midwives from Moscow, Washington, Paris, Riyadh and other capitals will have to work very hard to ensure the baby will be born healthy and viable.

| Al-Monitor

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