from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Time to Rethink Syria

May 27, 2014

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Julie Anderson is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

After three years of recurring conflict, an estimated 162,000 people killed (10,000 in the last two months), and millions displaced, international policies to stem the violence in Syria have been a clear failure. These efforts hit a new low on May 13 when United Nations (UN) mediator Lakhdar Brahimi resigned from his post, citing frustrations with the diplomatic process and the lack of common ground from which to build a negotiated solution. As the Syrian government, opposition forces, and international powers, particularly the United States and Russia, continue to stake out entrenched positions, and the regime prepares for sham elections in June, many have questioned if the Syrian conflict is ripe for a mediated solution.

Brahimi’s resignation is the latest in a series of roadblocks that hinder peace negotiations. Domestically, the June elections, which will likely result in a new seven year term for President Bashar al-Assad, threaten the possibility of future negotiations. Brahimi stated repeatedly that if elections proceed they will signal to the opposition parties a lack of commitment from the government to reform. This will likely cause the opposition to refuse to rejoin the negotiating table given that their stated terms for taking part in a deal include Assad being removed from power. Complicating matters is the fractured nature and increasing radicalization of Syrian opposition groups like Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, posing a challenge to determining which parties, and who within them, should have a seat at the negotiating table. Regionally, powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and Israel exert their influence, either directly or indirectly, on both the peace process and the ongoing violence, treating the conflict in Syria as a proxy war for regional hegemony. At the international level, the United States and Russia cling to fixed positions on both the future makeup of the Syrian government, as well as how to engage (or not engage) with Iran. This dynamic is exacerbated by the deepening rift between western countries and Russia over the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea

Given the current dynamic, the UN must take a step back and strategically refocus its peacebuilding efforts. As Brahimi wisely recognized, a third round of talks at present would bring about little change. Brahimi’s resignation is unfortunate as it signals the depth of the divide between the negotiating parties. However, the silver lining is that it provides the UN mediation team time and space to craft a new strategy.  In order to break the deadlock, this strategy should be two pronged.

First, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office and the UN Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA), which manages conflict mediation efforts, should focus on influencing Russia, the United States, and regional powers that can exert influence on the regime or opposition forces to play a more constructive role. Quoting a U.S. official in its June 2013 Syria report, International Crisis Group said: “what was once a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus.” The mediation effort ignores this reality at the peril of its own irrelevance. If the Assad regime ever comes to the negotiating table in good faith, it will be at the urging of its backers, primarily Russia and Iran. The UN team must pressure these countries to accept that any future solution will include changes to the Syrian power structure. Only once Russia and Iran accept this can they begin to influence the regime to do the same. Their vested economic interests in the country give them an incentive to facilitate an end to the conflict sooner rather than later.  Additionally, while activity in Ukraine has strained Russia’s relationship with the United States and European Union, it has also stretched their resources thinner, possibly providing an incentive to seek an earlier solution to Syria’s conflict.

Simultaneously, the UN team should work to exert similar influence over the United States and Western powers, which have established equally unrealistic positions. These countries must accept two facts: 1) Iran must be offered a seat at the table, and 2) any brokered solution will include Assad. For the West to continue to draw a line in the sand on Iran’s participation in talks undermines the entire peace process. Iran’s interests in Syria are deep, and if they are not included Iran will simply find other ways to ensure its objectives are met, evidenced by the recent Wall Street Journal report that Iran has recruited thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering five hundred dollars per month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime.

Second, the UNDPA should enlist Track II mediators to engage in diplomatic efforts with the regime and the opposition. Official channels are not making progress, but that does not mean there is no progress to be made. Organizations like the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue should be encouraged to form ties with both opposition leaders and members of Assad’s regime and pro-regime forces. Track II efforts have already taken place, including a meeting in Geneva in April with government officials, former government officials, civil society leaders, and opposition leaders from Syria and Syrian diaspora communities. UNDPA could do more to quietly encourage these interactions, which bring together lower ranking officials who are less likely to hold inflexible positions and viewpoints, by facilitating meetings, or convening with Track II organizations to make sure they have access to the same level of information as the mediation team.

With the humanitarian crisis deepening, international attention shifting away from Syria, and relations between influential powers like the Russia and United States deteriorating, it is clear that the strategies of the last three years have not and will not work. As Brahimi departs the mediation team, the UN must take this time to revamp its strategy if it wants to make progress.