Vienna talks offer glimmer of hope on Syria war
BEIRUT - Talks in Vienna about ending the carnage in Syria offered a glimmer of hope that international diplomacy could provide a solution to end the lengthy war, a perplexing multisided conflict which has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven half of Syria’s population of 23 million from their homes.
There was no dramatic breakthrough and a negotiated settlement as Syria lurches towards disintegration still seems far off because of competing strategic imperatives of the key players — Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
There were signs of progress at the UN-led Vienna initiative, conducted October 29th-30th, on the key issue of the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Major differences on Assad had torpedoed earlier diplomatic efforts. The United States and Saudi Arabia have long insisted they want Assad gone forever. Russia and Iran want him to stay but differ on how long that should last.
But in Vienna, the Americans, reflecting the realisation that ending the slaughter should be the key priority, indicated they would accept a six-month transitional period until elections can be held, which would likely mean the end of Assad’s rule. The Russians endorsed that.
The decisive parliamentary election victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Assad’s most implacable opponents, on November 1st could seriously complicate a deal on Assad’s fate.
The Vienna gathering was the broadest peace effort since the war began in March 2011 and for the first time included Iran, one of the most prominent players in the conflict and long excluded from diplomatic talks by the Americans. However, the Syrian regime and their rebel opponents were not directly represented.
The Vienna convocation of 17 countries also brought together arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, although their support for opposing sides in the conflict has dangerous sectarian overtones and could yet prove to be a serious impediment to a diplomatic solution.
“I am encouraged that the participants have reached a mutual understanding on a number of key issues, United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon declared on October 31st.
The Syria war has defied all peacemaking efforts but the menace of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the massive flood of refugees from this and other regional wars that threatens to swamp Western Europe forced major powers to seek a solution to the Syrian conflict.
There is still little common ground and there are indications that the most divisive element could turn out to be the competing agendas of Russia and Iran, who are, as a fickle fate would have it, Assad’s main backers.
Moscow and Tehran have widely separate strategic imperatives in Syria that are likely to be a major stumbling block to reaching a workable settlement in a country that has fragmented into ethnic or sectarian zones, each with their own patrons among regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Assad to stay on, even if he only rules a rump state embracing north-western Syria and Damascus where Russia can establish military facilities to challenge NATO in the Mediterranean and reassert Moscow’s Cold War influence in the Middle East as the US withdraws.
Shia Tehran wants Assad to continue to control the north-west, the heartland of his minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shia Islam — and the land corridor to Lebanon through which it can supply weapons to Hezbollah with which to threaten Israel.
“Iran… wants to unite all Shias under its umbrella irrespective of the borders between countries or states,” observed Lebanese analyst Hanin Ghaddar. “In Iran’s view, Syria is not a state. It’s just part of the Iranian plan” to expand Shia power in the Middle East.
“Fundamentally, Iran wants in Syria what is has in Lebanon — weak, ineffective state institutions incapable of making decision without the approval of their patrons.”
Despite the alliance between Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria, there are signs their political differences will grow.
Major-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has spoken of clashing interests between the Islamic Republic and Russia. He said on November 2nd in Tehran that Russia intervened in Syria primarily to secure its own global and regional interests.
Iran, Jaafari stressed, “does not see any alternative to Assad”. “There are some who do not understand this and are talking about an alternative to Assad… It is not clear that Russia is aligned with Iran with regard to… Assad,” Jaafari said.
Iran’s escalating power struggle for Middle East ascendancy with Saudi Arabia is also going to be a serious problem to ending the Syrian slaughter. Amid bad-tempered bickering, Iran said on November 3rd it would quit the peace talks if Riyadh continued its “negative role”.