Low Expectations for UN Syria Talks

The UN’s latest bid to negotiate a political transition in Syria is unlikely to yield results. Behind its mediators’ failures lie a wider breakdown of great-power politics, says expert Richard Gowan.

May 5, 2015

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The UN embarked this week on a renewed bid to negotiate a political transition in Syria, whose conflict has entered its fourth year, with casualties surpassing 220,000. After the failure of two earlier high-profile summits, “the UN is trying to keep expectations exceptionally low,” says NYU’s Richard Gowan. When UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura meets in Geneva with representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Syrian opposition, and their international backers, he will be gauging the prospects for negotiations, but the parties will not talk with one another. De Mistura “presumably can’t see any signs of an imminent breakthrough,” Gowan says, but the UN should not bear all the blame for diplomatic stalemate: “Its mediators’ failures are symptoms of a wider breakdown of great-power politics.”

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura began consultations with parties to the Syrian civil war in Geneva. (Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura began consultations this week. Given the failures of his predecessors, Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, to reach a settlement, what are the chances of him succeeding?

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The UN is trying to keep expectations exceptionally low. It has warned that there are unlikely to be major announcements during the upcoming consultations, and that they may even conclude without any sort of statement. De Mistura has invited the Syrian government and a number of opposition groups, along with other actors, including Iran, to Switzerland for a series of one-on-one consultations with him. There won’t be direct negotiations among the parties. De Mistura wants to distinguish these meetings from Annan’s and Brahimi’s efforts, which got a great deal of hype.

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The UN has learned the hard way that high-profile peace conferences aren’t the answer to the Syrian war. Annan brought the permanent members of the Security Council to Geneva to discuss a political transition in Syria in mid-2012, and they signed a framework. But the Syrian regime wasn’t present, and Russia ensured that Assad faced no real pressure to comply with the agreement. Annan resigned shortly afterwards.

His successor, Brahimi, spent months attempting to get the Syrian government and the moderate opposition to meet in Lausanne and Geneva at the start of 2014, but UN officials knew that the encounter was almost guaranteed to flop. Assad’s representatives treated Brahimi and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with contempt. The talks petered out, and Brahimi, who had talked about quitting for ages, finally did so a few months later.

De Mistura evidently wants to avoid that sort of breakdown. He focused on brokering local cease-fires between Assad’s forces and their opponents. His idea was that these confidence-building measures could be the basis for a more general peace agreement. But his flagship initiative, a freeze in fighting in Aleppo, failed, and the rebels accuse the UN’s man of collaborating too closely with Assad. A lot of the opposition has turned against him, although Annan and Brahimi were also accused of investing too heavily in Assad at times. De Mistura’s decision to pivot back to talks in Switzerland implies that he has lost faith in the bottom-up approach to peacemaking. So now he is back seeing if he can find some sort of high-level political agreement on a way forward. But he presumably can’t see any signs of an imminent breakthrough, because he is avoiding anything that looks like Annan- or Brahimi-style summit talks.

There are three possible interpretations of his new approach. The optimistic one is that de Mistura believes that he can use these talks to frame the terms for direct negotiations later in the year. The pessimistic alternative is that he is losing patience and simply wants to tick the consultations box before resigning. A third, unglamorous one is that this is just process for the sake of process. UN mediators have kept talks over other intractable conflicts, ranging from Cyprus to Somalia, going for years or decades. It is sometimes necessary to hold consultations to remind everyone that a diplomatic track is still available, although there is a risk that sustaining the process becomes an end in itself.

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Doesn’t this confirm critics’ claims that the UN is toothless in the face of mass atrocities, ten years after the UN World Summit endorsed the “responsibility to protect” doctrine?

Yes, but you have to ask why the UN is failing. It is easy to overestimate what mediators like Annan, Brahimi, and de Mistura can achieve alone. They can facilitate talks but they can’t force Assad or his opponents to lay down their arms.

I’ve argued that the big powers often use the UN as an alibi for inaction. Syria is a textbook case. Russia has strung out the diplomatic process to shield its ally Assad from more serious pressure. The United States has been complicit at times as well. The Obama administration pushed for a deal at the first Geneva talks, in 2012, because it wanted to downplay the Syrian war in the run-up to the presidential election. Secretary of State John Kerry strong-armed Brahimi into overseeing the second round of talks, in 2014, to deflect calls for military intervention.

De Mistura has had to keep the political process on life support while Washington has focused on war against the Islamic State, which has replaced engineering a Syrian settlement as the West’s top priority. The UN has certainly made mistakes, but its mediators’ failures are symptoms of a wider breakdown of great-power politics.

Recent reporting has suggested that the tide of war may be turning, with the Assad regime under increasing strain and rebel forces, bolstered by better coordination among their sponsors, making gains. Will these battlefield dynamics affect the course of talks in Geneva?

The regime’s weakening military position is one of the three potentially important variables that could create some momentum for a deal. The others are the opening between the United States and Iran and possible shifts in Russia’s calculations.

“The UN has learned the hard way that high-profile peace conferences aren’t the answer.”

While analysts should be cautious about predicting Assad’s defeat, he has recently lost territory, and there are signs of cracks opening up within his forces. This could make negotiations easier. UN officials have always felt that Assad will only talk seriously when he becomes worried about his personal security. Brahimi reportedly believed that Assad’s position was close to unraveling in late 2012, and pushed the president to get serious about a peace process. The UN made a mistake: Assad was able to cling on.

His recent setbacks may be equally illusory. It seems that Assad refuses to accept that he could fall, especially now that the Islamic State is the main focus of international attention. Equally, if the rebels feel that they now have greater military momentum, they may want to keep pressing forward on the battlefield.

Opposition leaders are going to Switzerland, but their distrust of de Mistura may make them less likely to compromise if they think that Assad is in trouble. De Mistura will have to work awfully hard to persuade both sides that they have a common interest in bringing the war to an end.

Nuclear negotiations between major powers and Iran have a June 30 deadline. Has this changed the calculations of the former with respect to a negotiated settlement in Syria?

This is the second biggest variable for the UN, as Iran is involved in de Mistura’s consultations. Tehran was not invited to the Annan talks, in 2012. There was a massive snafu in 2014 when Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to the Brahimi talks but then withdrew the offer under U.S. pressure. That row captured how dysfunctional the UN process had become. It is a positive sign that the UN invited Iran for this third bout of talks without a big fight.

It’s tempting to believe that the nuclear deal could act as a fulcrum for a grand bargain that would include a Syrian peace deal. The fact that Iran and the United States both oppose the Islamic State also points to the case for a bargain. But this is probably wishful thinking, at least in the near term. Security in the Middle East has arguably worsened since the agreement of the outline nuclear agreement in April 2015. Russia approved the sales of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, and the Saudi-Iranian proxy war has escalated in Yemen. It is not clear that either the West or Iran has the diplomatic bandwidth to forge a grand bargain that embraces all these problems at once.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states view the UN process over Syria with contempt, and Iran’s involvement is only likely to increase their doubts. If Riyadh and its regional partners want to scuttle the de Mistura talks, they may push their proxies among the rebel groups to walk away and escalate the fighting. Nonetheless, Iran’s recognition as a legitimate participant in the diplomatic process gives de Mistura an ounce more credibility.

What about Russia’s calculations?

Given the overall deterioration of Russian relations with the United States and the West, you might expect Moscow to be in a very bellicose mood over Syria. But the Russians have signaled that they want to cooperate over Syria despite tensions elsewhere. Moscow made an initial push for the current talks in Switzerland. It also initiated a Security Council resolution on cutting off funds to the Islamic State in February, which Western diplomats welcomed. And it signed a resolution in March condemning the use of chlorine gas in fighting in Syria, for which most observers believe Assad’s forces were responsible. Last month Russia backed a Security Council statement on humanitarian access to Syria.

“The big powers often use the UN as an alibi for inaction.”

The optimistic interpretation is that Russia has decided that, having successfully defended Assad so far, it’s time to look for a deal that preserves its influence in Syria. A deal might also distract from Russia’s bad behavior in Ukraine. The pessimistic interpretation is that this is a ruse to keep the United States and its allies stuck in an open-ended diplomatic process. Russia exploited its agreement with the United States on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons to boost its leverage in this way. It also has a track record of creating apparent openings for compromise with the West and then refusing to make real concessions. It would be a very brave UN official or Western diplomat who bet that Moscow isn’t going to repeat that pattern.

De Mistura previously advocated local cease-fires and a “freeze” of the conflict in Aleppo to at least provide humanitarian relief while the political track was blocked. Can the UN take credible steps to alleviate civilian suffering in the absence of a political agreement?

The UN emphasizes civilian protection, but it struggles even in cases like Darfur, where it has thousands of peacekeepers. In Syria it has a much more limited range of tools. These include humanitarian relief work, mediation efforts, and its ability to draw public attention to atrocities. But its humanitarian efforts have been constrained by a shortage of international funding and Assad’s refusal to allow aid to many vulnerable areas. Its local mediation has occasionally made short-term cease-fires possible, but the scale of the conflict has overwhelmed this piece-meal approach. And while Ban Ki-moon and his advisers have tried to articulate the scale of the crisis, they struggle to get heard when so many other crises absorb international attention. Brahimi talked about the threat of the Islamic State early on, for example, but nobody seemed to listen. One senior UN official once privately equated the UN’s role in the Syrian war with the mythical Cassandra: Foreseeing and warning of upcoming disasters, but doomed to go unheeded.

What is the best possible outcome of the current talks?

The realistic answer is: more talks. If de Mistura comes out of these consultations, which could last six weeks, with a sense that there is some momentum for a deal, the UN can then get Assad’s supporters and opponents in the same room, as Brahimi tried to do, but gradually and quietly. A rush for an agreement would just backfire again.

Even if the rudiments of a deal are negotiable, there will be a host of follow-on questions: Should the UN send peacekeepers to police a general cease-fire? Is there any chance of post-conflict justice? Above all, what will happen to Assad himself? Whatever happens, the UN is going to be stuck with Syria for a long time.   

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