Geneva talks should seek the most basic goal: Stop the fighting

Friday 29/01/2016
Just hold the bullets

WASHINGTON - The United Nations and US Secretary of State John Kerry insist that the par­ties gathering in Geneva begin the process of put­ting Syria back together again. But fierce disagreement exists over many core issues, including who should not be at the negotiating table.

While Kerry has been confidently asserting that the talks will con­vene — the most recent target date was January 29th — the Syrian gov­ernment has made it clear it will make no concessions in the talks.

This is hardly an auspicious be­ginning to the Syrian “peace pro­cess” and raises the question: What exactly should diplomats be trying to achieve in Geneva, assuming the most important actors show up?

The situation on the ground, as well as the conflicting views among the outside actors — two of whom, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been on the verge of conflict themselves — suggest that the Geneva talks should have as their objective the most ba­sic of goals: An end to the fighting.

That is what three US analysts suggest in a policy briefing written for the RAND Corporation, a ven­erable California-based think-tank with deep ties to the Pentagon and the State Department. The briefing was written by James Dobbins, who served as US ambassador to the European Union under President George W. Bush and as President Barack Obama’s special representa­tive for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Philip Gordon, who served as spe­cial assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region from 2013-15; and Jef­frey Martini, a Middle East analyst in RAND’s Washington office.

The briefing argues that the im­mediate objective of talks should be to determine “the most practical way to end the fighting”. More con­tentious issues, such as the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad, should be delayed.

“At this point,” the analysts write, “whether President As­sad stays or goes in the near term should be regarded as a matter of pure expediency; the United States should pursue whichever outcome will more quickly stop the fight­ing.”

The RAND briefing in effect de­clares that the objectives outlined in the nine-point plan regarding Syria agreed to in October put the cart well ahead of the horse: “There seems to be no prospect that the contending Syrian parties can agree on detailed arrangements for a new Syrian state, let alone on its leadership, anytime soon.”

Instead, Dobbins, Gordon and Martini propose that the talks in Geneva focus on “securing an im­mediate ceasefire, accompanied by internationally agreed arrange­ments for its enforcement.”

As difficult to achieve as even this will minimal goal is, “it is a more realistic goal and its achieve­ment would be hugely preferable to its main alternative — the indefinite continuation or even escalation of a devastating war. A ceasefire may not be a sufficient condition for an eventual political settlement but it is likely to be a necessary one.”

The briefing proposes that Syria be divided into four zones: areas controlled by the Kurdish fighters; areas held by the Damascus re­gime; the broad swath of territory controlled by opposition forces; and territory under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). The cease­fire would apply to the first three zones only; the war against ISIS, the authors say, should continue.

They go on to say that external actors — the United States, Russia, Turkey and Jordan — should be responsible for guaranteeing the ceasefire in their respective areas of influence. For the United States, this would be the Kurdish areas; for Russia, the government-controlled area; and for Jordan and Turkey, ar­eas held by opposition forces.

As modest as the RAND pro­posal is compared to Vienna’s nine points, it still would require inten­sive negotiations and compromises and a considerable amount of polit­ical risk-taking by outside actors. It would need to include a side agree­ment between the United States and Russia, for example, to ensure that there are no “accidents”.

The Saudis would have to be convinced to accept an agreement that recognises the Assad regime as the legitimate administrator, if not government, in the parts of Syria it holds. The prospect of the Kurds being in charge of a zone, would be anathema to Turkey, lest the zone transform into a state at some fu­ture point.

Some will argue that by estab­lishing zones the proposal works against the professed desire for an eventual reunification of Syria. However, the reality is that Syria will not be unified any time soon and may never be. And unification certainly will not happen while Syrians are killing each other.