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vienna conference on syria

The peace conference on Syria that was held in the past weeks between Vienna and Geneva is relevant not because of the results it will produce – none in the short term, very few in the medium term, hopefully some in the long term – but because of the scenarios it will define.

The return of Russia in its role as “superpower” and that of Iran following the deal on its nuclear program have changed the balance of power in the region. In the aftermath of the events in Ukraine and the international sanctions that followed, Moscow was playing a defensive foreign policy. It has now turned the tables in sponsoring the Syrian regime. Russia is presently the only country capable of developing a negotiated solution to the crisis; a way out of the conflict that could envisage a “controlled” political transition in Damascus that will safeguard the privileged axis between Moscow and Syria.

Both the United States and Russia are not interested about the fate of Bashar al Assad, whose war crimes make him a disposable asset, but rather of defeating the ISIS. Moscow pursues this target by helping the Syrian regime, while Washington supports a portion of the rebellion and asks, at the same time, that Assad leave power. It is around these variable that the fate of the negotiations will be decided.

Until now, pragmatism has reigned in the talks and has allowed all the adversaries to sit around a table. The same level of pragmatism will have to be used in seeking a solution. As Russia correctly suggests, the removal of Assad from power would create a void and Syria could collapse, thus helping the spread – once again – of the Islamic State. No matter what, there are no options available when it comes to the continuity of power in Damascus, with or without Assad. The Syrian dictator is alternatively a bargaining chip or a contentious issue.

A crowded conference

The negotiations have gathered regional and international actors that, in one way or the other, have a say on Syria: key countries like the United States, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey; regional organizations such as the European Union, the Arab League and the UN, that hosts the talks led by its representative Staffan de Mistura; other nations with a varying degrees of influence as China, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the UAE. Such a wide participation should postulate the common goal of achieving a negotiated solution regardless of each party's political views.

Clearly, the leverage of each negotiator varies according to the degree of their involvement in Syrian affairs. Russia and Iran have their forces on the ground, while the United States have to cope with being a superpower unwilling to involve itself directly and with a reluctant foreign policy. This provides the United States with a different bargaining weight.

The President of the Council of Europe, Donald Tusk, has stated over the past weeks that Russia is not the solution for Syria. He probably meant it is not the solution Europe nor the United States envisage. Moscow is currently the only country actually doing something while other international actors are either too contradictory or totally immobile. As a matter of fact, several actors sitting at the talks have brought along with them a series of issues that have little or nothing to do with the Syrian civil war. In other words, the struggle for Damascus has catalyzed and emphasized a number of exogenous variables that have now become part of the problem.

kerry and nayef
US secretary of state John Kerry with Saudi Mohammed bin Nayef

Non-Syrian issues

Iran represents the most emblematic evolution for the Middle East. A once marginalized country has turned into one of the main actors. It has the military strength, a competitive economy and upholds the rights of the Shia communities of the region. Teheran still faces a number of internal contradictions in the ongoing struggle between reformists – in favor of a moderate foreign policy – and the regime's hardliners. The upcoming February 26, 2016 elections will define where the country stands. However, with 2.500 Pasdarans, 5.000 Lebanese Hezbollah and around 15.000 Shia volunteers from Iraq and Iran that have flocked to Syria to fight, Teheran is one of the key players.

Saudi Arabia does not like this state of things and its relationship with Iran has been under strain since the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr on January 2, 2016. It still unclear how this downfall of bilateral ties will influence the outcome of the Syrian talks. It is pretty clear where Riyadh stands when it comes to the fate of Assad; a position also shared by Ankara. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both part of the so-called “Islamic NATO” and are both wary of Teheran's growing prestige. The risk of a Sunni-Shia sectarian war is not so remote. Saudi Arabia is facing an internal power struggle, is failing in Yemen and its economy is faltering because of the drop in oil prices. Wary of Iran's return on the scene, the Saudis could decide to use Syria to regain some ground.

The Kurdish syndrome is instead still central for Turkey. The fear that the Syrian Kurds may benefit from their war on terrorism with increasing degrees of autonomy or – in the worst case scenario for the Turks – independence is dictating the agenda in Ankara. This explains the recent attacks against Syrian Kurds and the fight against the PKK. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have come closer, but questions remain on who the enemy to fight is and what the priorities are: Assad to deter Iranian influence, the Kurds to deflect the PKK or al Baghdadi and the ISIS?

After having declared they were unwilling to contribute boots on the ground, the United States are suffering from a soaring Russian role, but are also benefiting from the military response against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Washington has been extremely pragmatic when it comes to terrorism. To recapture Ramadi, in Iraq, the US coordinated its air strikes with Iran and the Shia militias.

Every actors in the negotiations has to come to terms with its fears. Russia supports Assad to keep a foothold in the region, continue to sells its weapons and continue to use the Tartous naval base for its fleet. With an eye to what has happened in Libya, the West is leery of a destabilized Middle East, the future role of Iran, the fate of the Christian minorities that have benefited from the support of the Assad regime. Above all, it is clear that without a political deal, the military option will see Russia and Iran define the future of Syria. This is exactly what is happening now as the talks have stopped and the bombings are on the rise. It is not hence a coincidence that both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are discussing the deployment of their troops on Syrian soil to fight their “terrorists”.

Invitations at the table

The key issue, before talks even start, is to identify who will sit around the table to represent the opposition to Bashar al Assad regardless of the vetoes that hold back the peace process. This is where the first, major problems begin.

Saudi Arabia has shaped its own opposition after summoning a series of groups to Riyadh. The Kurdish factions were left out to please Turkey, but they still managed to form their own from in Hasaka, in Syria. The ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra were obviously not part of the talks, although a number of extremist Islamic groups that benefit from Saudi or Turkish support are present. The Saudi initiative, praised by the US, was stigmatized by Russia for not being authorized or agreed upon. The Syria Contact Group has tasked Jordan with that chore. Moscow has already made clear that it doesn't want terrorist groups at the talks. There will be a huge debate on who is a “terrorist” and who is not.

It is now hard to make sense of the thousand or so armed factions that are fighting against the Syrian regime. The so-called “civil society”, or political opposition, has had to leave the way for the armed groups. The presumably secular Free Syrian Army, with its 40 thousand fighters and US support, will face fundamentalist Islamic factions as Ahrar ash-Sham – 80 or so factions counting on 15 to 20 thousand men and supported by Turkey – and Jaish al Islam with ties to the Saudis. All these groups don't see a need for a “transition” of power in Syria and are asking for Assad to step down before the negotiations and that the bombings stop before talks begin.

syria destruction

An uphill task

The victims, the destruction, the atrocities and the traumas the civil war has brought with it leave very little room for a negotiated solution and for a national reconciliation. There is a clear divide between the Alawites and the Sunnis, the loyalists and the rebels. In other words, any deal will have to come with the necessary follow up from the outside to prevent another escalation. Brokering such an agreement will be extremely difficult, as the recent failures remind us.

The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war for a number of external actors. Their military involvement implies that they can also play a positive diplomatic role. The peace conference has defined some criteria around which talks will not debate: the safeguard of the territorial integrity of Syria, its independence and secularism, the protection of the population regardless of their ethnicity or religion, humanitarian assistance, the defeat of terrorism, and the political transition that will leave Syrians decide on their future. It is still a positive development that all the actors of the Syrian crisis have decided to create a synergy to find a solution.

Five years of civil war have destroyed Syria. Over 300 thousand people have died, 4 to 5 million refugees have left the country. The negotiators claim they can reach a deal within the next 18 to 20 months. Is this a realistic target? It will definitely prove to be a difficult one. Time will play a role, as the longer it takes to reach a deal, the harder it will become to defeat the ISIS. This could be the decisive factor in pushing the international community in finally finding an agreement to end the Syrian civil war.

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