Visiting Scholar in the Middle East Program
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Director of Government Relations & Strategist
Syrian American Council
Arab Center Washington DC
Arab Center Washington DC
On Monday February 29th, Arab Center Washington DC hosted a panel discussion on the Syrian peace talks titled “Syria Peace Talks Resume in Geneva amid More Concerns & Uncertainties.” As the fifth anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, three prominent panelists discussed the regional and international ramifications of the UN-led talks and their implications for a potential future resolution. In light of the recently adopted UN Security Council agreement 2268 on the cessation of hostilities, and the larger UN Security Council agreement 2254 endorsing a road map for a peace process and setting a timetable for talks, the discussion focused on the roles of the US and Russia.
Dr. Joseph Bahout, Visiting Scholar in the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, kicked off the discussion with a macro political perspective, noting that the recent agreement has for the first time “clearly and without ambiguity” transformed the Syrian crisis from the international format into a bilateral format between the US and Russia. In this US-Russian duopoly, Bahout warned, “we have America subcontracting the Syrian crisis to Russia” where the diplomatic process is determined according to Russian terms leading to the consolidation of the fragmentation of Syria. Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia are moving towards finding common grounds with Russia. Internal US politics certainly play into this development; in its last months the Obama administration is either satisfied with its overall legacy in the Middle East and will not engage in Syria, or Obama is seeking a last minute success which is only possible in cooperation with Russia. The end result in either case is Russian control over creating the lasting outcome on the ground.
Mohammed Ghanem, Director of Government Relations & Strategist at Syrian American Council, focused on the US position in the last months of the Obama administration. Ghanem explained that the US focus on ceasefire or “violence reduction measures” leaves the US with no leverage to shape the situation in Syria. With the US overestimating the extent to which Russia will engage in a diplomatic process, “the Russians are good at paying lip service to the talks” while pursuing military measures on the ground. “The ceasefire has loopholes big enough to get Russian military jets through them” Ghanem said. From the perspective of the Syrian opposition, according to Ghanem, what is needed is a serious commitment from the US to counter the Russian military intervention in Syria, stand by the moderate opposition, and establish safe zones to protect civilians from regime and Russian attacks, “then and only then will a diplomatic solution hold.”
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Middle East Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC, emphasized the importance of the 2011 Geneva communiqué that was considered by the opposition as the best resolution because of its focus on human rights, however in June 2012 the Security Council refused to include it as a resolution. Ziadeh was pessimistic about the talks as de Mistura’s conception of a resolution through a top-down approach, due to regional and international involvement, is unlikely to work. In addition, breaches and violations of the agreements by Russia and the Assad regime are myriad. Most importantly, the Assad regime refuses to call this process “negotiations” referring to it as mere talks, which is problematic according to Ziadeh because talks don’t lead to outcomes. Overall, in Ziadeh’s assessment, “the resumption of the negotiations is very difficult as the gap between the different groups is huge, and there is little interest internationally to protect Syrians and make the transition happen.”
The panelists disputed the common dichotomous perception in Washington that a resolution involves either invading Syria or doing nothing. Bahout pointed to several diplomatic leverages not yet utilized, such as demanding that Moscow comply with its signature on the Geneva platform. Ziadeh proposed humanitarian air drops by the US (which Russia has been doing for a year, though only to regime supporters) and the recognition of the Syrian opposition. Ghanem added that establishing safe zones is another option, noting that the problem with regard to US policy is “not a lack of options, but a lack of political will.”
Ziadeh warned that the international abandonment of the Syrian suffering gives a legitimate argument for ISIS recruitment. Ghanem concluded that US policy with regard to Syria has failed for several years; unless the US changes its policy, we will see continued extremism, continued violence, and continued suffering by the opposition and civilians due to Russian and regime attacks.