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