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Can Negotiations End the Conflict in Syria?

For the resumed peace talks in Geneva to have any chance of success, the United States must realize that diplomatic solutions cannot be realized independent of the military realities on the ground, writes Frederic Hof, former U.S. special advisor for transition in Syria.

Written by Frederic C. Hof Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura suspended Syrian peace talks in February due mainly to a civilian-centric Russian bombing campaign. Now he is summoning the negotiators. The bombing campaign has slackened, casualties are down and humanitarian aid is beginning to flow to a small but noticeable fraction of desperately needy Syrians. Can peace negotiations add, at long last, a dose of reality to the “no military solution for Syria” mantra chanted by the West as Syria disgorges people?

The whip hand now resides at the end of the arm of the president of the Russian Federation. He, unlike his Western counterparts, fully grasps that diplomatic results reflect military realities. He, his Iranian partner and his Syrian client (Bashar al-Assad) all understand that the solution they seek for Syria requires military muscle to shape diplomatic processes and mold political outcomes. Much – indeed the majority – of their military firepower has focused on civilians. They think that collective punishment, mass homicide and terror work; they demoralize survivors and make death magnets of armed rebels. In the absence of any useful Western pushback, they may be proven right.

The Syrian opposition would return to Geneva in the wake of over six months of Russian bombing, an aerial blitz that has reversed the military fortunes of an exhausted Assad regime. Moscow’s September 30, 2015 intervention was launched in the name of battling ISIS. This was a lie. Russia entered to save Assad, for whom ISIS was the least of problems. Indeed, for a Syrian president steeped in atrocities and mind-numbing criminality, ISIS is the potential ticket back to polite society; an entity arguably worse than Syria’s principal destroyer. Russia has wasted little time on ISIS. Instead it has helped Assad – born aloft on the ground by Shia foreign fighters – regain key non-ISIS territory in northwestern Syria.

It is against this backdrop that the Syrian opposition will try to negotiate a transitional governing body to replace the regime and rule Syria temporarily. This end is dictated by the June 2012 Geneva Final Communique: the basis for the peace talks. Obviously the opposition wants Assad gone. Unaided, their prospects for success are precisely zero.

Aid could, hypothetically, come from Assad’s crucial crutches: Moscow and Tehran. Their efforts to sideline a hopelessly corrupt and brutal family-based regime could preserve the Syrian state and enable a united Syrian front against ISIS. This would require real statesmanship and foresight. Neither is likely to be forthcoming if talking points are all they face.

Russia’s Putin sees Assad as embodying a state he has vowed to save from the alleged regime change and democratization machinations of President Barack Obama. Iran’s Supreme Leader sees Assad as uniquely enthusiastic, in an otherwise nationalistic Syria, about subordinating the country entirely to Iran on the question of Tehran’s Lebanese franchise: Hezbollah.

The Obama administration – which wants Assad gone for the sake of a united Syrian front against ISIS – could try simply to accommodate Moscow and Tehran, but the price would be high. Indeed, it would be prohibitive.

To accommodate Putin, Obama could agree to provide American air support to Syrian Army units willing to fight ISIS. Agreeing to partner with Assad – the person Obama called on to step aside back in August 2011 – would enable Putin to proclaim victory over the alleged Washington regime change struggle and perhaps dispose him toward replacing his client, whose survivability blackens Russia’s reputation and boosts ISIS’s recruitment everywhere. But an American partnership with Assad – unless producing his removal and a unifying replacement very quickly – would fracture key elements of the existing anti-ISIS coalition in the Gulf and Turkey and could expose the president to a domestic political firestorm.

To accommodate Iran, Obama could agree to persuade the Syrian opposition to preserve Tehran’s privileged position in Syria so that Hezbollah in Lebanon could be fully supported. This would, of course, entail facilitating the work of the criminal enterprise that imprisons Lebanon as it threatens Israel with missiles and rockets: all at the behest of Tehran. No doubt the Syrian opposition would have to make such an arrangement on its own; even so, its endorsement would be very distasteful for Washington. No American administration would consciously promote Iranian hegemony and its murderous consequences in the Levant.

For these peace talks to have a prayer in shaping a genuine Syrian consensus on a united way forward, the Obama administration will have to act. The targeting of civilians will have to be minimized, and should be coupled with a massive increase in access for U.N. humanitarian agencies and workers. The naval task force, which, in August-September 2013 momentarily convinced Assad and Putin of American seriousness, should be reconstituted. The regime should know that the resumption of barrel bomb attacks will attract cruise missiles. Russia should know that a renewal of Chechnya-like tactics against Syrians and their hospitals will encounter air defense. The self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate in eastern Syria should achieve quick martyrdom courtesy of an American-led professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing; one including no country or regime specializing in the targeting of Syrian civilians.

No end of Syria’s agony and its international implications is to be had through purely military means. Yet there is no diplomatic solution independent of military facts. The United States will not seek armed conflict with Russia in Syria. But by protecting Syrian civilians it can make peace talks thinkable and potentially productive. By making it hard for Russia and Iran to do their worst, the United States can help them both better appreciate the costs of supporting Assad.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Top image: A U.S. aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq on Aug. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

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