To no one’s surprise, and certainly not everyone’s disappointment, the latest round of peace talks on Syria this week in Geneva collapsed almost before it began. The Syrian warring factions, after all, never really agreed to discuss anything directly, or even sit together in the same room. Instead, international mediators led by U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, on February 1 started going back and forth between Syrian government officials sitting at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva and opposition representatives gathered at their hotel. De Mistura announced a “pause” in this process on February 3, signaling that even this limited framework isn’t sustainable under the current circumstances. Demands by the opposition that the government lift its siege on various civilian areas in order to allow in humanitarian aid were completely ignored by the regime, contributing directly to the breakdown of the talks.
The global powers involved, particularly the United States, seem increasingly interested in developing a political process to end the conflict. But the armed Syrian factions, their regional backers, and especially the regime of President Bashar al-Assad don’t seem ready to engage meaningfully, appearing to see the value of continued conflict. The regime is seeking a military solution to its predicament, while the rebels are hoping to reverse a series of serious setbacks over recent months to regain the initiative of much of 2015, now lost to these reversals.
Syria remains a key proxy battlefield for rival coalitions led by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the recent upsurge in tension between Riyadh and Tehran following the execution of Saudi Shia dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Iran, the likelihood of progress between these rivals became more remote than ever. In the weeks leading up to the recent flare-up, the diplomatic sidelines of the Syria negotiations had emerged as an unlikely but invaluable venue for Saudi-Iranian dialogue. These talks were the one place where diplomats from the two countries would meet, regularly, predictably, and face-to-face, to discuss crucial issues. If Riyadh and Tehran were going to move beyond their icy relations, this was the most likely context in which such progress, however limited, might have emerged.
The diplomatic encounter continues, with both Saudi and Iranian representatives taking part in the temporarily stalled, talks. But the context for progress on any front, let alone the super-charged question of Syria and the future of Assad, seems to have moved from unlikely to unattainable, at least under the present circumstances. Rather than pressuring their Syrian clients and allies to move toward a political solution, these regional powers seem committed to looking for a comparative advantage from further military confrontation on the ground in Syria.
Indeed, the forces backing the Syrian dictatorship, including Iran and its regional allies, and, crucially, Russia, appear to be committed to seeking a military ”solution” for the regime. Even if the Syrian government cannot end the conflict completely by reestablishing uncontested rule over the whole country, it can at least control the areas most critical to its fundamental policies. This involves securing a thick corridor of about a quarter of Syria, running north from the Lebanese border area, through Damascus and Aleppo, and into the northwestern coastal areas around Latakia. The Assad regime and its allies seem increasingly confident this, at least, can be accomplished. Russia’s military intervention in late 2015 was cynically packaged as an international counterterrorism initiative against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, the overwhelming majority of Russian air power has been targeted against the mainstream rebel groupings supported by Saudi Arabia and its two key partners, Turkey and Qatar.
This intervention appears to have successfully shifted the momentum in the conflict in favor of the regime, particularly in the areas it is focused on controlling. During much of 2015, Syrian regime and pro-regime forces consistently lost ground to rebel groups supported by Middle Eastern regional powers, particularly the Riyadh-backed Jaish al-Islam coalition and Ahrar al-Sham, favored by Ankara and Doha. While the situation on the ground was typically fluid and complex, for much of 2015 these groups made steady progress in key and heavily contested areas of the country at the expense of the regime (and also, at times, at the expense of ISIL).
The Russian intervention first stopped and has now apparently reversed this trend. In recent weeks the military momentum appears to have shifted dramatically in favor of the regime and its allies, including ground forces from the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Independent clinically summarized the emerging situation, in a war of competing sieges aimed mainly at targeting innocent Syrian civilians, as follows:
“According to the UN, the Syrian government is besieging 187,000 people in rebel-held towns; the rebels by contrast are besieging only two towns, with 12,000 residents. That is [now] the scale of the [emerging] asymmetry between the sides.”
The situation in many besieged areas is reportedly dire, with opposition activists reporting starvation conditions in a number of localities. The international donor community has pledged billions of dollars for aid to starving and desperate Syrian civilians, but delivering this desperately needed support may be difficult if the warring factions, especially the government, continue to use siege and starvation as a key tactic of war.
The regime appears to have used the latest round of international negotiations as a platform to demonstrate its newfound, or newly-regained, military strength. It sought to demonstrate that it is only interested in a military “solution,” rather than a peace agreement, by launching a significant offensive in several key areas, especially near Aleppo, on February 1 as talks convened. By Wednesday the Syrian military reportedly broke the siege of two crucial government-held villages in an effort to cut supply lines between rebel-held areas of Aleppo and its environs and the Turkish border. Over 300 Russian airstrikes were reportedly part of this major offensive, which was characterized in one editorial as a shameless and overt act of diplomatic “sabotage.”
The regime position is that it does not negotiate with “terrorists,” and that “in Syria, everyone who holds a machinegun [not under the control of the government] is a terrorist.” Russia has identified Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as “terrorist” organizations, although it agreed to the participation of their representatives in the peace talks on an “individual basis.” Moscow thereby agreed that these key opposition organizations could be part of the negotiations in practice (thus “having its cake”) while continuing to identify them as politically intolerable terrorist groups in theory (thereby “eating it too”).
These Islamist groups were brought into the official Syrian opposition negotiating structure at a Saudi-brokered meeting of rebel groups in Riyadh in early December 2015. Particularly at issue was the participation of Ahrar al-Sham, given its frequent insistence on a future political and social order in Syria based on the application of sharia law and, worse, its history of collaboration with the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. The United States wanted evidence that Ahrar al-Sham was renouncing any cooperation with al-Qaeda and was moving away from a dogmatic and implausible fixation on sharia, especially given the heterogeneity of Syrian society. Ahrar al-Sham did eventually sign off on the meeting’s “Final Statement,” which indicated a much broader and more tolerant vision for the future. Ahrar al-Sham thereby became part of the quasi-official High Negotiations Committee formed at the meeting to conduct diplomacy on behalf of a supposedly united Syrian political and paramilitary opposition. It is the HNC that gathered in the Geneva hotel for the recent round of negotiations.
Even before the extent of the regime’s new momentum on the ground became apparent, at least two major problems for the HNC were obvious. First, it is haunted by the challenge that it must confront ISIL and other terrorists as well as the regime, and that the United States prioritizes the battle against ISIL. This presents both theoretical and practical conundrums for the opposition, particularly given that Ahrar al-Sham has a history of sometimes collaborating with Jabhat al-Nusra. This is obviously unacceptable to the United States, and also of serious concern to Saudi Arabia, despite its support of the group. Breaking this pattern of cooperation, and indeed confronting ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, must be an imperative for the opposition if it is to be politically viable in the long run. Yet, at the same time, that process cannot be perceived as in any way playing into the hands of the regime. No one has thus far proposed a comprehensive approach to cutting this Gordian knot.
Second, because of Turkey’s objections, one of the most important, successful, and effective armed opposition groups in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been excluded from the opposition umbrella entirely. The group was not invited to the December opposition meeting in Riyadh, and has no representation in the HNC. Turkey is alarmed by the strong ties between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which, for decades, has been fighting a bloody and bitter conflict with Ankara over the future of Kurdish-majority areas inside Turkey. Turkey’s direct air intervention in Syria earlier in 2015 was also marketed internationally as a counterterrorism campaign against ISIL, but like the Russian intervention that followed it, in reality pursued its own interests.
Saudi and Qatari accommodation of Turkish hostility toward the PKK, and by extension the YPG, has greatly damaged the Syrian opposition, particularly at the political level. On the ground, when the opportunity has presented itself, elements within the mainstream Arab Syrian opposition such as the nationalist Free Syrian Army have joined with YPG units taking on ISIL in northern Syria. Moreover, the Kurdish groups have been successful in establishing a de facto independent area that they call “Rojava” in much of the northern region of Syria, an enclave that is liberated from government control and free of the depredations of ISIL. Its main challenges come from the Turkish military and state, rather than the Damascus dictatorship or ISIL fighters.
The exclusion of these highly successful Kurdish forces from the opposition umbrella not only undermines the ability of the HNC to speak on behalf of the effective military and political opposition in Syria, it also reflects and promotes ethnic divisions that are a threat to Syria’s future no matter what defines its political order. Freezing the Kurdish groups out of the opposition coalition might have been viewed in Riyadh as unfortunate but unavoidable because of Turkey’s central role and the depth of its opposition to the YPG. But this perspective is short sighted. Although these divisions don’t strengthen the regime as such, it certainly badly weakens and divides the opposition. In effect, it means that rather than racing a unified front the regime is encountering a fragmented array of competing forces that, even within the HNC umbrella, is politically divided by ideologies, affiliations, and practical interests. These self-same divided but mainstream rebel groups must nonetheless confront the terrorist organizations that are a cancer on the uprising. Finally, the most politically significant and militarily effective Arab and Kurdish opposition groups in Syria are unable to fully cooperate, let alone unite, because of Turkey’s domestically driven objections.
As things now stand, the shared Saudi-Qatari-Turkish policy goal of regime change in Syria is in real trouble, if not profound crisis, as the Assad dictatorship’s contemptuous attitude toward the peace negotiations vividly illustrates. A year ago, the regime appeared to be approaching a state of exhaustion. But now, following a series of dramatic reversals mainly stemming from the Russian military intervention, the regime and its supporters appear to be once again not only confident of survival but sincerely hopeful of a possible military “solution” that secures their control of the key areas of the country for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the fragmented opposition is struggling politically and diplomatically, and even more ominously on the ground militarily. As long as that is the case, Damascus, Tehran, and even Moscow will have few compelling reasons to endure a political compromise that sacrifices the continued rule of Assad and his inner circle, which is a sine qua non of any political agreement from the opposition perspective.
Riyadh and its allies are going to have to oversee some significant rebel gains, both military and diplomatic, in order to alter this equation. If it is as committed to a peace agreement in Syria as it appears to be, then Washington, too, has a strong interest in changing the current balance of power on the ground. Only then are the regime and its supporters likely to seriously consider the need for a negotiated end to the conflict. Unless a real incentive for them to compromise emerges, the Assad regime and its local, regional, and global supporters will almost certainly persist in their current attitude that casts peace talks as little more than a diplomatically and politically useful farce.