When peace talks stall
WASHINGTON - The Syria peace talks stalled even faster than I might have predicted, though I was never sanguine about the chances for success. The reason for the suspension is all too clear: The Syrian Army is making headway in north Latakia, around Aleppo and elsewhere, with vigorous support from Russian air strikes as well as Hezbollah ground forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “advisers” (more like commanders).
Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies see no reason to halt the offensive. The Syrian opposition, which had asked for an end to air strikes and an opening of humanitarian access, sees no reason to talk while its people are getting slaughtered. Those of us who said this conflict was not “ripe” for peace talks, which includes almost everyone knowledgeable about the situation, were right.
That is little comfort. Nor does it mean the United Nations was wrong to try.
It is the United Nations’ role to take on cases no one else wants to touch. That’s how it ended up with Libya, Yemen and Syria. The Americans and Europeans left Libya to its own devices, which sufficed for a while but then proved unequal to the state-building challenge. Now there is an agreement of sorts but no implementation.
The Houthis and Saudis wrecked a four-year peace process in Yemen, based on a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement and UN mediation, with military action. A recent effort to reinitiate talks has been postponed. Syria has already seen two UN efforts to end the war — Geneva I and II — fail. Geneva III looks likely to founder, too.
These stalled peace processes are bad for Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians but they don’t have much say in the matter. Civilians are the most frequent victims of these wars, as the contestants are vying for power within a state rather than trying to defeat the regular military forces of another state. Moving civilians, or persuading them to accept your rule, is therefore the objective, not an unintended consequence. It is far less perilous to men with guns (yes, most of them are men) to go after unarmed civilians, or even armed insurgents, than to contest another state’s armed forces.
The only real beneficiaries of continued fighting in Libya, Yemen and Syria are likely to be the extremist forces affiliated with al- Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). They thrive on disorder — areas that have witnessed chaos are more likely to accept their draconian rule — and the extremists often fill the vacuum as states concentrate their efforts against less extreme insurgents.
The one thing we can be pretty sure of from the experience of fighting extremists since 9/11 attacks on the United States is that attacking them from the air without establishing order on the ground thereafter ensures that we will have to roll Sisyphus’s rock up the hill once again. And with each iteration the extremists get bolder, smarter and more lethal.
We are all too clearly losing the war against violent extremism. We should be thinking hard about whether the means we are using are appropriate to the task. Washington’s purpose should be to eliminate safe havens for extremists who might strike Americans. Drones have distinct advantages. They keep their operators safe while killing bad guys, but they can’t re-establish governance on territory from which extremists have been driven. Only legitimate state authorities can do that. It is time to refocus attention on where these legitimate authorities are going to come from.
Stalled talks are an opportunity. The warring parties in Libya, Yemen and Syria as well as their international supporters should be thinking hard about how these countries will be governed once the killing stops. Both the fighting and the peacemaking are worthless without an answer to that question.