Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Way Out of the Syrian Debacle
Steven E. Meyer
By Steven E. Meyer
January 31, 2014
The first session of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between representatives of the government of Syria and the main opposition groups has now ended. The talks are fragile; just getting two of the warring parties in the same room has been a long, difficult process. The Syrian civil war is now in its third year, well over 100,000 people have been killed, and both sides have engaged in incredible brutality. Despite the great need to end this war, the likelihood of success—at least right now—is very slim for two interrelated reasons.
First, the Geneva I communiqué’s stipulations, which lay out the terms of a future settlement, will be difficult to accomplish. The communiqué calls for a cease-fire, humanitarian measures, and a transition government to replace the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Each of these involves what are considered zero-sum surrenders by one side or the other. Relinquishing power by the Assad regime is especially a nonstarter for the government.
Second, not all the parties involved in the fighting are represented at the talks. Representatives of the government and the more “moderate” opposition groups, such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), are there. But the “extreme” opposition groups that either are backed by or are part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda franchise, and Iran, which borders Syria, are not there. Originally, the United Nations had invited Iran to participate, but the SOC objected and the United Nations withdrew the invitation under pressure from the United States. Moreover, the government and the SOC each have powerful backers that have different visions of what a settlement should include and are unwilling to surrender ground. Several Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are shipping money and weapons to the SOC. Most Western countries, including the United States, also back the SOC and are sending the rebels mostly non-lethal aid. Russia, China, and Iran back the Assad government with material aid and diplomatic support.
If there is to be a settlement, at least five things must happen. First, the major suppliers of weapons must agree to end all shipments to both sides. The keys to this are the United States, Russia, and Iran, and if this is to happen, Washington has to drop its objections to participation by Tehran. Second, the patrons of both sides must agree that they will not become involved militarily in Syria in support of either side. It is unlikely that this will happen in any case, but several US lawmakers advocate air support for the rebels. Outside military involvement will only deepen the war and complicate peace talks.
Third, the patron states must agree that compromise is the only possible way forward. This will require hard choices for everyone, including a willingness in Washington and Moscow to approach the ISIS, as well as pressing the SOC and Assad to accept participation from all sides—including the ISIS—in a future government. Fourth, there must be no preconditions for further talks and everything must be “on the table.” This likely will lead to a transition government, a constitutional committee, and elections. Additionally, all parties would have to accept the possibility—even probability—that if peace is to return to the area, Syria may have to dissolve into two or even three states. It is important to remember that modern Syria is less than 100 years old, having been constructed by Britain and France out of the detritus of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Finally, all of this must be codified in a Security Council Resolution and supported by all the major players.
For Christians, prayer to end this tragedy is critical. Churches, denominations, and Christian non-state actors need to reach out to the major actors, including the United Nations, to push hard for a creative agenda to bring hostilities to an end, supply humanitarian aid, and help find a political solution. It will be necessary also to reach out to and partner with Muslim organizations that are interested in finding a solution. Without this kind of action, the war will continue because the various patrons, including the United States, are simply too hidebound, conventional, and self-serving to accomplish peace on their own.
- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.
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