One in two million--a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. Flickr / Peter Watkins, UK DFID. Some rights reserved.
On November 26, the United Nations secretary general made another call for a Geneva peace conference on Syria, to be held on January 22. These calls have been issued since June 2011 but no belligerents have shown up because each has been allowed to define the preconditions for negotiations. The only way to break this stalemate is for the UN and major powers to set the conditions for participation and enforce them.
During the past 2½ years, 100,000 more Syrians have died, more than two million have fled the country as refugees and six million have been internally displaced. The war among Syria’s many sectarian groups has become more brutal, and some neighbouring countries are even more deeply involved in trying to help one side or the other prevail. It is time to ask why the calls for peace have been fruitless.
the principal actors insist on preconditions of victory rather than the mutual accommodation essential to bringing the war to an end
The opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have insisted that the goal of the Geneva conference is to replace his government, something he predictably rejects. His government demands that the increasingly fragmented opposition groups, all of whom it classifies as ‘terrorists’, put down their weapons before they can discuss peace. This stalemate explains why the latest call for negotiations in January is unlikely to succeed.
The UN has been fortunate to have two brilliant special envoys dealing with Syria: Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi. But they have not been permitted to use their negotiating skills, because the principal actors insist on preconditions of victory rather than the mutual accommodation essential to bringing the war to an end. These preconditions aim to win an unwinnable war rather than to forge an imperfect peace and in the process they deny the Syrian people their sovereign right to choose.
An alternative set of preconditions, difficult for all sides to accept, can lead toward democracy and tolerance. This would require that global and regional actors take the first step and encourage their Syrian allies to take the next ones.
All actors will need to make hard compromises if they want to end the war. If they fail to take these difficult steps, the war may very well go on for another decade and likely create a wider circle of destruction and death.
We propose three principles on which to base the discussions in Geneva:
● self-determination: the Syrian people should decide on the country’s future government in a free election process, under the unrestricted supervision of the international community and responsible non-governmental organisations, with the results accepted if the elections are judged free and fair;
● respect: the victors should assure and guarantee respect for all sectarian and minority groups, and
● peacekeeping: to ensure that the first two goals are achieved, the international community must guarantee a robust peacekeeping force.
Any local, regional or global actors that accept these three preconditions should be welcomed to the Geneva negotiations. They should not be controversial but they mean that Syrian factions—and their supporters—would have to back down from their former unreasonable demands. The recent agreement on control of chemical weapons indicates that unforeseen compromises are possible if the UN and its major international players can decide on a common goal and work together.
No one can win this war. The parties think they cannot afford to lose because they fear annihilation and this explains why the war will keep going unless the international community imposes a legitimate alternative.
An important first step is to create a credible, independent, nonpartisan election commission. A second important step is to build a security mechanism that would prevent any party from sabotaging the election or implementation of the results. We would need Russia and the United States to agree to this approach, Iran and other regional powers to stop supporting their proxies and the UN to elevate this issue to a top priority.
It is time to change the agenda, the preconditions and the strategy on Syria—and end the war.
This piece first appeared as an op ed article in the Washington Post.