As conflict in Syria approaches its sixth year, major powers on both sides of the conflict have endorsed UN efforts to mediate between the government and opposition. Talks initially slated for January 25 in Geneva are jeopardized by disagreement over who will represent the opposition. But the more fundamental obstacle to negotiating a settlement is dispute over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future, says CFR’s Philip H. Gordon. U.S. diplomats are aiming “to find a path between the extremes of immediate regime change and no regime change at all,” says Gordon, who previously handled Syria policy at the National Security Council, but “it is unclear if that circle can be squared.”
Let’s start with the immediate news, the difficulty in relaunching talks. What is the UN hoping to achieve?
The UN may have to delay its extension of invitations to peace talks on Syria because of a lack of agreement as to who should represent the opposition. These talks were called for by the International Syria Support Group, a group of seventeen countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the Europeans, Iran, Russia, and others. Their goal is to bring the regime and the opposition together to negotiate a cease-fire and political transition in Syria. But so long as you don’t have an agreement on who should represent the opposition, it’s impossible for a meeting to take place. An alternative option may be proximity talks, in which the regime and opposition would be present but do not meet with each other directly.
What are the dynamics, and the complications, of choosing who will represent a very broad and fractious opposition?
There is still a dizzying array of competing opposition groups within Syria, all of which are sponsored by different outside actors with their own agendas.
In December there was an opposition conference hosted by Saudi Arabia, which is trying to take the lead on this issue. The Saudis managed to bring together a wide range of different actors, including some they do not themselves support, but these actors are still a long way from being able to speak with one voice. The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) were excluded, while another major group, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, participated but was divided about endorsing the final statement.
“There is still a dizzying array of competing opposition groups.”
All of the outside actors have their favorite opposition groups, as well as groups that they are not willing to tolerate. Those in the region that are most determined to overthrow Assad are open to the inclusion of extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham in the opposition, whereas the United States and some of the Europeans believe that Ahrar al-Sham is too close to al-Nusra. Turkey is supportive of Turkmen representation and concerned about Kurdish groups. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turks don’t want to allow elements of the opposition that are more sympathetic to the current regime to play a major role, whereas Russia and Iran won’t insist that the regime show up at the talks unless these more sympathetic groups take part.
The essential difference among the outside powers is that Russia and Iran are determined to preserve the Assad regime while Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are determined to get rid of Assad as soon as possible. The United States has been trying to see if there’s some middle ground, for example by setting a concrete timetable for Assad’s departure, or reducing the powers of the presidency and empowering a transitional government until elections can be held. So far it has been impossible to bridge the gap on the most divisive question of all, which is Assad’s future.
What calculations underlie Iran’s and Russia’s support for the regime? What would be their minimal acceptable requirements in a settlement?
Russia and Iran are both strongly committed to the preservation of the regime, for different reasons. Russia, first of all, hates regime change in general. The Russians strongly oppose the notion that when people are dissatisfied with their local dictator they can take up arms and then Western countries come in to back them and overthrow the regime. They opposed that in Georgia, Ukraine, Libya, and Central Asia, and are determined to not let it happen in Syria. The Russians are also afraid that if the Assad regime were to fall, it would be replaced not by moderates but by Afghanistan- or Somalia-like chaos, or extremist Islamist groups will take power, which the Russians think would also threaten them. The Russians also want to preserve their sole naval base on the Mediterranean, at Tartus, and to demonstrate their importance as a geopolitical power, particularly at a time their economy is struggling due to sanctions over Ukraine and the falling price of oil.
Iran, on the other hand, has a strategic interest in Syria mainly because it provides a land bridge to its proxies in Lebanon. It has therefore provided vast amounts of money to support the regime and to deploy its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the regime.
Neither the Russians nor the Iranians are particularly attached to Assad per se. If a way could be found to get rid of Assad and those around him, but keep the regime’s institutions in place, the Russians and Iranians might go for it. But they refuse to push him out, and they’re dubious that there’s some alternative that could maintain the regime and their interests. They also doubt that even if somehow that happened, the opposition would stop its fighting.
The big news of last week is that Iran got to “Implementation Day” of the nuclear agreement earlier than expected. Is there any reason to expect Iran’s role with respect to Syria will shift?
There is little sign that Iran is willing to change its fundamental support for the Syria conflict or back off of its support for Assad. Whatever prospects for cooperation might have come from the implementation of the nuclear deal, they are more than counterbalanced by the growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the recent Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric and the Iranian reaction to it, which included Iranians burning the Saudi embassy and the Saudis and others withdrawing their ambassadors from Iran. That shows the degree to which Saudi Arabia and Iran remain at loggerheads.
“Russia and Iran are determined to preserve the Assad regime while Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are determined to get rid of Assad as soon as possible.”
The execution of the cleric was, in part, a way for Saudi Arabia to send a message that just because it’s now willing to sit at the same table with Iran over Syria, it is not looking to compromise with Iran. Riyadh may also be deliberately fanning the flames of sectarianism to validate its own role as the protector of Sunni Muslims and boost hardliners in upcoming Iranian elections to impede the prospect of further Iranian reconciliation with the United States. So long as you have such fundamental lack of agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s hard to see how you can close a diplomatic deal in Syria.
Do you expect Saudi Arabia to play spoiler in the talks?
The Saudis perceive Iran to be a threatening adversary that is expanding its role throughout the Middle East. They talk about Iran as already controlling four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa, and Beirut—and wanting to further expand its influence throughout the region. They especially fear that after the nuclear deal, when Iran has gotten access to its frozen financial assets and is able to sell oil on international markets, it’s going to play an even more problematic role in the region.
Whereas some others in the talks seem to believe that the consequences of the war are now so devastating—with the number of killed, the spillover of the refugee crisis onto neighboring states and into Europe, and the radicalization of Muslims around the world—that they appear to be willing to look for some sort of compromise, the Saudis have shown little flexibility on the need for a political transition. They want to drive Iranian influence out of Syria, and that means getting rid of Assad.
What are the Obama administration’s calculations here? It seems to be primarily concerned with maintaining a broad coalition to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The United States believes that you can’t effectively deal with ISIS unless you have a political transition in Syria, because it is Assad’s daily bombardment of the opposition, killing some of his own population, that has radicalized many Muslims not just in Syria but beyond, leading some of them to join ISIS. The United States is thus trying to do two things at the same time: combat ISIS, directly through military strikes and Special Forces, but also negotiate a political transition that includes Assad’s departure.
The United States has sought for more than four years now to provide as much support as it can to the opposition, working with neighboring states and others, to put pressure on the regime to negotiate a political solution. But because the regime is so strongly backed by Russia and Iran, U.S. support has not sufficed to bring that transition about. So the aim of U.S. diplomacy now is to bring all of the parties to the table to try to find a path between the extremes of immediate regime change and no regime change at all, to include a cease-fire and a political transition process. It is unclear if that circle can be squared.
How are battlefield dynamics affecting the prospects for a settlement?
I would describe it as a dynamic stalemate. The battlefield map is constantly changing, but there is little prospect that one side or the other is going to achieve a military victory. The regime cannot achieve a military victory because most of the country is against it, backed by a number of neighboring states, and there’s no way for this narrow Alawite-led, Iranian-backed regime to reestablish its control over the entire country and particularly the Sunni majority or the Kurds.
“At this point, almost any peace would be better than the current war.”
At the same time, there is little prospect for the opposition to unseat the regime militarily because Assad maintains the support not just of minorities such as Alawites and Christians, but a number of Sunnis themselves, all of whom fear what would take place if the regime collapsed militarily, and because it has the very strong backing of Iran and Russia, including now direct Russian military presence and Russian air power. That is why a diplomatic settlement and some form of de-escalation is so essential. Without it, it looks like the war is going to continue to kill so many people, create so many refugees, radicalize Muslims, and contribute to the growth of ISIS.
The siege of Madaya, in the news last week, highlighted how so often humanitarian concerns have been subordinated by political and military ones.
The United States and others have provided extensive humanitarian relief, now totaling more than $5 billion, but it’s not nearly enough. The longer this vicious, bloody conflict goes on, the further the tragedy of the humanitarian situation, with more than 250,000 killed and more than ten million displaced both internally and outside of Syria, will increase. There are also places in Syria that humanitarian aid doesn’t reach, and the regime has often deliberately used sieges and starvation as a battlefield tactic. The tremendous proportions of this humanitarian tragedy is why de-escalating the conflict must be prioritized. At this point, almost any peace would be better than the current war.
This interview has been edited and condensed.