Why Diplomacy is Failing in Syria

By Manish Rai:

There have been multiple diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict since it erupted in 2011 but all have ended in vain. Recently as well no agreement was reached or set out in a final document at the ministerial meeting on Syria held in the Swiss lakeside city of Lausanne. It proved to be a futile exercise. The meeting came to an end without even the release of a joint statement by its participants.  With yet another failed peace talk on Syria, the question on everyone’s mind is why do they keep on failing? Everybody agrees that Syria needs peaceful solution to the conflict that should be reached through a dialogue. But still up to now no diplomatic efforts have proved successful. Even this failure of diplomacy raises a question mark on the credibility of the United Nations as in every failed peace talk the UN was involved either directly or indirectly. It won’t be wrong to say that Syria has exposed the reality of a twentieth century UN struggling to respond to twenty-first century challenges and finding itself helpless in dealing with regional and international proxy wars like Syria’s.

It is often argued that talks are failing due to “irreconcilable” differences between the United States and Russia over the conflict and that’s absolutely right. But there is another reason as well which is leading to the failure of peace talks. We all know that external intervention has the adverse effect of prolonging a conflict beyond its natural life-span. One study that was based on every United Nations peace-making effort since 1945 found that such efforts succeeded in resolving two-thirds of conflicts where only two sides were involved. However, where there were multiple sides to a conflict, the success rate dropped considerably to only a quarter. That’s exactly the case with Syria. The Syrian conflict has multiple dimensions with many parties involved. Syria has become the theatre for a battle between Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran, between the West (along with its Arab and Turkish allies) against the so-called Islamic State, between the West and Russia and between Turkey and the Kurds, who Ankara sees as a threat to its own territorial integrity. What began as a conflict between President Assad and sections of his own people has become a wider regional struggle. So in the Syrian case it’s becoming very hard to get a peace solution which is acceptable to everybody.

Peace talks, March 2016

Peace talks, March 2016

The two superpowers United States and Russia which are supporting different parties in the conflict can play a vital role in bringing a solution to the conflict through a dialogue between different parties. Together, the United States and Russia should push for negotiations that convene the regional supporters of the opposition and the regime. A regional track is needed because the Syrian civil war has become a proxy regional war principally between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but with important roles played by Qatar, Turkey, and Iraq. Until the main external supporters reach some sort of accommodation, they will continue to fund, arm, and otherwise give their proxies hope of victory. This unhappy dynamic played out frequently during the Cold War, lasting for decades in Angola, Guatemala, and Vietnam. The United States can nudge Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into a more constructive role in the negotiations, and Russia might be able to do the same with Iran. Any future peace talks for Syria should be structured in a multi-layered format. It should include every party in the conflict: the Superpowers US and Russia, regional countries supporting different parties in the conflict, the Syrian government and opposition groups. It is essential for key regional powers including, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to accept the need to militarily disengage from the Syrian conflict and to accept that a broader regional sectarian conflagration was not in anyone’s strategic interests. Behind these powers, the Arab League, United States and Russia have a crucial role to play as potential guarantors of any negotiated settlement. It is also essential for the Security Council to signal its determination to punish violations of any peace agreement.

But to achieve this kind of comprehensive dialogue some preparatory measures should be undertaken. The working groups model of the peace process should also be considered. It is similar to UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s former proposal of thematic working groups. Mr Mistura originally envisioned four such groups that would sound out Syrian actors and their sponsors on discrete issues, instead of trying to conclude one single peace and transition deal for all of Syria. Moreover a “talk while you fight” arrangement can also be tried. Certainly it won’t end the war, but it can perhaps limit the human suffering, allow for constructive engagement across the frontlines on isolated issues, and pave the way for more meaningful political dialogue later on.

Manish Rai is a columnist covering the Middle-East and Af-Pak regions and Editor of the geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com

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