Syria: The Need for Negotiated Peace Efforts

Many recent events have slowed Washington’s rush to war against Syria, including the vote in the British Parliament against a punitive strike at the Syrian government, President Obama’s decision to consult Congress after it comes into session, the holding of the G20 Summit in St Petersburg, Russia, and a wide-spread desire on the part of many governments to be informed of the conclusions of the UN chemical weapons experts who had been in Syria.

The time gained must be used wisely to create a renewed negotiated peace effort.  There are at least two major elements to such a renewed effort.

The first element is the regional dimension — bringing together the major external powers which have an influence and an interest in the Syrian conflict.  This effort is being called “Geneva II” after a June 30, 2012 “Geneva I” meeting which reached a broad agreement among Russia and the USA on an orderly transition of power within Syria — although the fate of President Assad was left vague.

“Geneva II” needs to bring into negotiation all the regional states as well as the “Great Powers”: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon as well as the USA, Russia, France and England. Egypt would be a logical participant were it to have a stable government by then.

The second element — but which may be the most important — is good faith negotiations among the current administration of Syria, the armed opposition movements, and as representative-as-possible non-armed political currents within Syria. Since many of these factions are not speaking to each other and often have contested or unclear leadership, there are, no doubt, preliminary efforts needed before large-scale negotiations among Syrians can be carried out.  Such preliminary efforts can be encouraged by non-Syrian organizations and various forms of Track II diplomacy. The United Nations Secretariat also has a role to play here.

Has the time for negotiations passed?  It is certain that issues of greater social, political and economic participation by more segments of the Syrian society could have been discussed at the start of the then non-violent protests in March 2011.  However, at that time, neither the government nor the different strands of the opposition moved to set an agenda on issues on which negotiations were possible or a realistic timetable for such negotiations.

Today, is the only realistic possibility a “Yemen option” in which the president leaves the country and a transition coalition is formed?  There is no evidence that President Bashar al-Assad plans to leave or that he can be pushed out. In fact, the Syrian government refuses to recognize the domestic roots of the conflict and places all the blame for the escalation of violence on foreign countries — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.

In such a stalemated situation, can President al-Assad, very late in the day, still undertake negotiations with the opposition that would insure his continued role as President while at the same time undertake reforms that would permanently modify the socio-political structures of the country in order to give greater roles to other social classes, ethnicities, and religious identities than at present?  The al-Assad government will have to recognize that one-family rule with narrow sectarian support is no longer possible and that its opponents have real grievances.

It is to be hoped that all the parties may prefer a negotiated settlement rather than the current stalemate of each trying to dominate the other.  A start would be to set an agenda of issues to be negotiated between the opposition groups and the government.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria by whatever forces in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol has focused world attention on the conflict in Syria.  The first reaction “to bomb Syria even if it is illegal” has fortunately slowed down and given cooler heads a chance to weigh the more adequate measures to be taken. Awareness of the dangers of the current situation in terms of lives lost, refugee flows, negative impacts on neighbouring countries and a permanent fracturing of Syrian society is growing.  The Syrian challenge calls for creative responses. The common theme must be on the duty of all parties to start negotiations in good faith.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.