Coauthored with Claire Schachter, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
How to interpret the diplomatic kerfuffle over the United Nations’ decision to invite—and then disinvite—Iran to the Syria peace conference, scheduled to begin tomorrow in Montreux, Switzerland?
Chalk it up to the naivete of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who overestimated his powers of persuasion and Iran’s capacity for manipulation. On Sunday, Ban thought he had secured Iranian assent to the terms of the first Geneva conference, which calls for a Syrian transitional government based on “the principle of consent.” Iran, aware that Syrian rebels will never accept a transitional role for Bashar al-Assad, has long rejected this formula. It turns out they still do.
When Iranian officials made their position clear on Monday, Ban made the right call. Under heavy U.S. pressure, he rescinded Iran’s invitation. That was the appropriate response. The fundamental goal of Geneva II is to get the warring parties—Damascus and the rebels—to come to the table and to begin the arduous, painstaking process of charting a path to peace. Iran is clearly an important regional player, and its conduct will help determine the course of the conflict. But Iran’s refusal to accept the basic premises of Geneva I, coupled with the risk of a boycott by the Syrian opposition, made revoking the UN offer the only reasonable course. As long as the Iranians are determined to assume the role of spoiler in the peace process, it is far better that they play their game from the “sidelines” than within the negotiating chamber.
The secretary-general’s awkward attempt to reshuffle the seating plan should not divert attention from a more pressing question: What can the participants in Montreux realistically hope to accomplish? As this blog has previously noted, Syria offers a textbook case of a “demanding” (read: hugely challenging) context for negotiating—much less implementing—a peace agreement.
In the case of Syria, it is not only the rebels and the Syrian government that are deeply divided. So are the rebels themselves, as well as the two main outside powers, the United States and Russia.
The rebels, represented by the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, are adamant that Assad’s removal from power is a precondition for laying down arms. Assad, for his part, insists that he will never leave under duress. (Indeed, he suggests he may be a candidate in future elections). So the talks may well collapse right out of the starting gate.
To complicate matters, the SOC is internally fragmented between Islamists and moderates, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing different factions. This will make it hard for the opposition to speak with one voice in Geneva. Things are even more chaotic on the ground in Syria, where moderate rebels are in open warfare with radical jihadis, including the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Given the ongoing struggle for the soul of the Syrian public, al-Jarba and other coalition leaders are naturally reluctant to participate in open-ended negotiations that may go nowhere. The are also skeptical that the United States is prepared, in the final analysis, to help force Assad from power. The main thing bringing them to the table, it would seem, is the veiled threat—made by the secretary of state recently—that their failure to show up would jeopardize external aid for their cause.
Finally, the United States and Russia—nomimal patrons of the peace talks—remain at loggerheads over the fate of the Assad government and the role of Iran in peacemaking.
Given this unpromising diplomatic landscape, Geneva II is unlikely to bear immediate fruit. With any power-sharing agreement, or even a countrywide armistice, off the table, the United States will need to pursue more modest objectives.
The most urgent goal is to improve humanitarian access to the eight million Syrians (approximately two-fifths of the country’s population) that have been displaced by the conflict. Last week, the United Nations sponsored the largest appeal for humanitarian assistance in its history, requesting $6.5 billion for victims of Syria’s war. That is a good start, but many of those internally displaced in Syria are being used as strategic pawns, denied the most basic access to food and shelter. Both sides must be pressed to create safe humanitarian corridors to ease civilian suffering.
Two other potential objectives mentioned by policymakers and pundits—facilitating prisoner exchange and agreeing jointly to fight “terrorism”—will be more difficult to achieve.
Reportedly, U.S. and Russian diplomats are willing to push both sides to exchange prisoners, as a good faith gesture. What is unclear is whether Damascus would agree to any such plan, particularly given recent allegations (by a Qatar-funded commission) that the Assad government has already tortured and executed as many as 11,000 prisoners in its custody.
Russian and U.S. diplomats have also suggested that the parties might jointly embrace a commitment to fight “terrorism.” At first glance, this makes sense: aversion to Sunni terrorist groups is something that unites the moderate Syrian opposition, the regime in Damascus, Russia, the United States, and the Gulf monarchies. Looking a bit more closely, the idea starts to fall apart. From the start of the conflict, Assad has repeatedly labeled all insurgents terrorists. And the United States, of course, classifies the Shiite Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to Syria, as a terrorist organization. Coming to an agreement on which groups qualify as “terrorists”—and how they should be countered—is likely to prove impossible.
In sum, the most likely diplomatic outcomes of this long awaited “peace conference” are likely to be pretty thin gruel. Even with the Iranian spoilers relegated to the sidelines, “Geneva II” is unlikely to see any major breakthroughs. At best, the summit will mark another phase in a protracted negotiating process that may continue for years, unless circumstances on the battlefield result in a clear victory for one side.
If this is a dismal prognosis, there may be one final area in which the United States can make a meaningful difference in negotiations between the two sides. This would be to insist on the inclusion of significant numbers of women in both sides’ delegations. It is a recurrent tragedy of civil wars that women, who suffer brutally during the violence itself, are typically ignored in their resolution. Belatedly, the United Nations Security Council has come to recognize (beginning with Resolution 1325 of 2000) that women can and must play a central role in peace-making and postconflict peacebuilding—and that peace is too precious to leave to the men with guns. Last week an umbrella group of Syrian women insisted to UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi that women should comprise at least 30 percent of negotiators on both sides. The United States would serve the interests of peace by championing their cause.