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Michael Jansen: Peaceful solution is need of the hour
November 27, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The survival of UN-sponsored Syrian political settlement talks depends on what happens in the coming round due to open tomorrow (Tuesday November 28th). Staffan de Mistura has soldiered on to keep the so-called “peace process” going while local and foreign-sponsored forces fought on battlefields across Syria. Now is the moment for the sides to end the conflict. The government, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian deployed ground forces, is no longer under challenge from rebels and proxy militias supported by some Gulf nations and the West. While negotiating from a position of strength, Damascus will be under pressure from its closest allies, Russia and Iran, to reach historic compromises with the political opposition and its armed allies if the war is to end.

Even though Damascus’ opponents are in disarray, their external backers can still prolong the war. If, however, they are to remain relevant they will be compelled to reach a deal with President Bashar Al Assad, who has no intention of standing down, the sole demand of hardline opponents. He has survived the armed struggle and regained most of Syria’s territory lost to Daesh, Al Qaeda and other armed groups. Syrians still living in the country, 18 million out of 23 million, simply want the violence to end, to get on with reconstruction and to rebuild lives put on hold by fighting. Indeed, they seek normalcy so eagerly that they are rebuilding homes and businesses while the war has spluttered on.

Syrians want security and stability only an established regime and functioning administration can provide. They do not want an experiment in governance launched by untested opponents from the diaspora or a collapse into anarchy fuelled by the ambitions of fundamentalist warlords.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey have established the basis for peace talks by holding talks between the government and armed opposition in Astana, Kazakhstan, and creating ceasefire, or “de-confliction” zones in the north, centre, and south of the country.

Since Ankara’s primary fear is the rise of the US-sponsored Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces — the Kurdish component being an offshoot of the separatist Turkish Workers’ Party — Turkey has joined Russia and Iran in this effort. This will have involved Turkey’s shift from an anti-Assad stance to acceptance of his presence at the helm of the Syrian ship of state until it reaches a safe harbour. However, Damascus, Moscow and Tehran do not fully trust Ankara which founded the Free Syrian Army and the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council/Coalition (now the Saudi-sponsored High Negotiations Committee) and funnelled thousands of foreign fighters into Syria with the aim of toppling the government.

Despite differences and distrust, Russian President Validmir Putin stated — following talks on November 13th with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the sides were “united in the need to increase efforts to ensure the long-term stabilisation (of Syria), above all to advance the process of a political settlement.”

In a November 21st telephone conversation with his opposite US number, Donald Trump, Putin secured his endorsement of his plans for the peace process. Trump did not reiterate the US off-and-on demand for Assad’s removal or speak of transition to a new regime but agreed Syria had to emerge from the war as a stable unified state to which five million refugees could return.

Ahead of the November 22nd gathering of the opposition in Riyadh, leading hawks in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) resigned, including its chairman Riad Hijab, a defected Syrian prime minister. It seems the hardliners were told by a Gulf country, which had been impatient with them for some time, to drop their demand for Assad’s removal or step down. This demand, unacceptable to the government and its allies, has stalled political settlement talks in Geneva since they began in early 2014. Their resignations left more “moderate” opposition groups to form a single delegation while in the Saudi capital. During previous sessions of talks at Geneva, the moderates of the Cairo and Moscow platforms had refused to sit with or unite with the HNC in spite of pressure from UN mediator Staffan de Mistura.

The outcome of the coming round, the eighth, of the Geneva talks depends on progress toward the formation of a transitional authority which will draft a new constitution and prepare for elections. The pressure is on both sides to compromise. Since the conflict is winding down Russia and Iran want to withdraw their forces and expend their energies in completing the pacification of the country, implementing a settlement and reconstructing Syria. They are certain to put pressure on Damascus to negotiate in good faith.

The opposition must do the same. In September, de Mistura told the HNC and armed groups the “message is very clear: if they were planning to win the war, facts are proving that is not the case. So now, it’s time to win the peace.”

If these talks fail, Russia and Iran and a reluctant Turkey are prepared to replace the UN-brokered intra-Syrian talks with their own inclusive National Dialogue Congress which would, according to Moscow, discuss “all issues on the national agenda and reach “compromise solutions” in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254. If this happens, Saudi Arabia and its Western partners will be marginalised in talks over the shape of Syria’s future.

It appears Trump has recognised the US is not in a position to compete with Russia and Iran and is prepared to support serious negotiations at Geneva. However, with the unpredictable Trump, nothing is certain. He and his regional allies could still act as spoilers of the Geneva talks by encouraging armed elements to continue assaults on government-held cities and the Syrian army and its allies. In the absence of the Geneva talks and Astana ceasefires, the Syrian military — freed from the battle with Daesh and backed by Iranian fighters and Russian airpower — could mount all-out attacks on areas held by proxy insurgents, killing civilians as well as fighters. In such a scenario, the US, Europe and their Arab allies would not only stand to lose their paramilitary assets but also sacrifice any role they may still have in forging a political settlement for Syria.

___________________________________________

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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