Syria: Geneva III, the nettle of negotiation (again), and ISIS (again)

Two years ago, the Geneva II talks on Syria took place. As they began, their prospects could be optimistically viewed as “virtually zero“. On Friday 29 January, Geneva III talks are due to begin and prospects do not look much better. That doesn’t mean they are a waste of time.

On the ground

In the days leading up to the new round of peace talks starting, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura issued invitations to participants, but there was no information on who had accepted, who had declined or even on who had been invited.

Meanwhile the war in Syria continues. Half the country’s population have fled their homes. The non-ISIS rebels are under increasing pressure from government ground forces and the Russian air campaign, out-performing some initial expectations. The Russian campaign looks to some observers more and more like a long-term commitment and its eventual prospects remain uncertain for, despite recent successes against non-ISIS rebels, Syrian President Assad’s own forces are showing increasing signs of over-stretch.

The talks

Syria’s situation is so tragic and, though battlefield fortunes fluctuate, the probability of ending the war through one side or another’s decisive victory looks so low, that a political settlement seems the only way out. As I have argued before (most recently in conversation with Bitte Hammargren – see clip below), and not I alone, that is only possible if there are negotiations involving all parties.

SIPRI meeting on the Middle East, in conversation with Bitte Hammargren, 20 January 2016, Stockholm

In that light, how do we evaluate the prospects for Geneva III?

This round of negotiations cannot produce agreement to end the war because ISIS is not involved. It will be a pleasant shock if the meeting produces a meaningful agreement to halt violence between the Assad government and any major opposition force. It will be a great achievement if the outcome is agreement on an agenda for further discussion. It will actually be a significant achievement, on the assumption that apart from ISIS all the main players have been invited, if the meeting begins on time with all the invited parties present.

To defeat ISIS?

That said, there would be more reason for the relentless optimism on which I pride myself if there were a clear strategy to restrict, downgrade and ultimately defeat ISIS. There is not and it remains a daunting challenge to devise one:

SIPRI meeting on the Middle East, in conversation with Bitte Hammargren, 20 January 2016, Stockholm

Ways ahead

For a political settlement, there is little alternative to continuing to work on the diplomatic front to try to find areas of possible agreement among an increasing number of committed protagonists: the Assad government, its Syrian and regional allies, Russia, the different opposition groups and their various sponsors ranging from the US, through western Europe, via Turkey to the Arab states.

Today, Syria’s most likely destiny seems to be becoming another Somalia or Lebanon. In Somalia in 1991, the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. That was the prelude to a quarter of a century of war, chaos, gangsterism, international intervention, the rise of an extremist group among the country’s Salafists almost to state power and the breakaway of two territories making up almost half the country’s land area. Lebanon was destroyed in 15 years of civil war and put back together only when peace was forcibly imposed and held in place by an external power – Syria.

Yet amid the destruction there are signs of hope. First, because the diplomatic work is going on, even if nought (or not much more than that) comes of it in Geneva. Second, because in some parts of Syria there have been local ceasefires and arrangements for displaced people to return: negotiated, agreed and implemented. They are no magic key but they do show that productive negotiations on the ground are possible. Perhaps peace of a kind may at least start in Syria not through high diplomacy and a grand design agreed in Geneva but in a patchwork of locally brokered agreements.

 

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