Over two and a half years on, a deep paralysis has set in over the diplomatic process of resolving Syria’s civil war, with deadlock at the United Nations between the United States and the Russian Federation, and the Geneva II talks so far stillborn. Yet while the recent Snowden asylum affair has sharpened differences between the two veto-wielding Security Council members, a small window of opportunity exists for Geneva II to succeed if both take concerted action.
The road to this political paralysis has been paved by missed opportunities to make conditions on the ground more conducive to a peace settlement. Washington failed to provide substantive political and financial support to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Syrian Military Council (SMC) after they were formed in late 2012. The US president, Barack Obama, and his national security team largely underestimated the resilience of the regime of Bashar Assad. Instead of building the capacity of these organizations and co-ordinating international efforts, Washington took a hands-off approach, allowing competing regional states’ interests to shape the politics of Syria’s opposition.
As a result, almost a year since they were formed, these two organizations have neither established nor developed legitimacy or strong leadership. They have lost their voice to the local revolutionary councils and competing militias on the ground, funded by regional patrons. Jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), have made substantial gains at the expense of the SMC-affiliated militias. Seeking to avoid being drawn into another war in the Middle East, Obama has consistently pulled back from any attempt to escalate American involvement in Syria—to the detriment of opposition groups and other potential allies on the ground, who have borne the economic, political, and human cost of Syria’s civil war.
From the early days of the uprisings Moscow placed too much confidence in its long-term relationship with the Assad regime and its capabilities. Russian policymakers expressed concern that Syria’s domestic crisis could empower Islamist political and military groups in the region and domestic opponents in the Caucasus region, threatening their interests. The number of Chechen jihadists arriving by the day in Syria confirms Russia’s deep concerns about the blowback from the civil war. As a result, Moscow has continued to provide substantial diplomatic and military support to Assad, and has shunned substantive engagement with the SNC and the SMC.
By pursuing narrowly focused strategies, Washington and Moscow have continually missed important opportunities to help build a strong, representative opposition that could be both more amenable to their own national interests and capable of negotiating a political settlement with President Assad. They must now account for the extreme insecurity created, as Syria has become a new recruiting and training ground for a generation of fighters who may potentially take the fight outside the country’s borders. In many regards, Washington and Moscow’s actions have made their own worst fears a reality. The Geneva process represents the best opportunity for both states to strategically re-engage with the civil war in Syria and pursue a political solution.
Threatened interests, mutual strategy?
The larger differences between the US and Russia, ranging from human rights to Edward Snowden’s asylum, are unlikely to be resolved soon. On Syria the two states could work together in support of each other’s strategic interests. Such co-operation requires a willingness to compromise and commit to a genuine diplomatic effort, which has so far been absent. But, the recently brokered agreement on the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons - an initiative proffered unwittingly by the US secretary of state John Kerry - illustrates how, when their interests do align and they are committed to finding an equitable diplomatic solution, Washington and Moscow can achieve substantive results.
To strengthen trust and to put the Geneva process on a better footing, the US and Russia should publicly outline a set of guiding principles for a post-conflict Syria. These would include a stipulation that the new government and constitution ensure equal political representation and protection of Syria’s heterogeneous population. Such principles could be supplemented by an agreement establishing working committees of Russian and American diplomats to address areas of mutual concern, including regional security, humanitarian aid and political and economic reconstruction.
In the immediate future, the two states could work together to blunt the impact of Syria’s civil war on its neighbours, where it has been felt from Beirut to Baghdad.. The neighbouring states—already confronted with internal economic, security and political challenges—will find it increasingly difficult to contain the effects of the bloodletting. Without a co-ordinated strategy that involves the US, Russia, the EU and regional powers, Syria’s civil war could completely destabilize the region. Both states have a substantial strategic stake in regional stability.
Alongside this regional effort to move forward the Geneva talks, Washington and Moscow could pursue a co-operative strategy where the former works to bring the political and military opposition to negotiations in concert with efforts by the latter to convince Assad to send a negotiating team empowered to make concessions on his behalf. With the SNC’s lack of legitimacy, organization and leadership, the opposition negotiating team will need to be expanded to include representatives of different political and armed factions on the ground. Washington and Moscow can manoeuvre from lines drawn in the sand to push for a diplomatic effort that engages both the opposition and the regime and incorporates new realities, such as the growing governance strength of armed militias.
At the same time, the US will also have to work to convince the opposition to agree to a negotiated settlement that makes political and economic concessions to minority communities in Syria. Washington could also take more steps to engage those minority groups in Syria who don’t feel that their voice is being represented in the current opposition and encourage the SNC to be more inclusive. The opposition must prepare itself for bitter concessions, including a potential agreement to a transition government that includes current members of the Syrian government and legal immunity for Assad.
Alongside renewed engagement with the opposition, the US must also work proactively to create more effective mechanisms to direct the diverse sources of funding through the SNC and the FSA, so that these organizations could build a viable and united opposition, isolating groups and militias that wish to destabilize the Syrian state or are passive towards extremists - a concern shared by Moscow. These groups could also help with a post-conflict transition. To support this effort, Russia could make a more concerted effort to engage these recognized, representative opposition groups.
With its low standing with the opposition and close relationship to the regime, Moscow will need to take the lead to ensure that Assad not only sends a senior negotiating team to Geneva but, more importantly, is willing to make substantial concessions. These could include Assad stepping down after the 2014 elections, ceding power to an interim government comprised of both regime and opposition members, and accepting indefinite exile from Syria. For this to succeed, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, needs to make arms exports conditional on the regime’s willingness to negotiate.
Putin is however well aware of the limits of his influence on Assad, who has repeatedly welcomed Russia’s political and military support but has been less willing to amend his policies to fit Russian demands and interests. Putin runs the risk of making demands which are too large or committing Russia to a position on which he may not be able to deliver. Since his perceived influence in Syria has been a large trump card with the international community that has kept Russia on the front page as a major power broker, he is unlikely to place himself in such a position.
A small window of opportunity does then exist for the US and Russia jointly to re-engage with this crisis, though this requires co-operation and compromise on both sides. Without that, diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war will continue to stall and fail to protect both states’ strategic interests. It is important that they seize this opportunity to bring Syria’s different actors to the table in Geneva—before the conditions on the ground make it impossible to do so.