The scheduled Syrian peace talks are to start on 22 January with a large conference in Montreux chaired by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, to be followed by subsequent talks in a smaller setting in Geneva starting 24 January led by the Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakdar Brahimi. As clearly indicated in the invitation by Ban Ki Moon (full text can be found here) the ultimate goal of the talks is the implementation by the Syrian government and opposition of the Geneva Communiqué as issued on 30 June 2012 (now known as Geneva I). The Communiqué (full text here) calls for a transitional government with full legislative powers to be created by mutual consent. What that transitional government should look like, what will be in their mandate and what not, who should be part of it and who should not, is not mentioned and part of the coming negotiations.
It is still unclear whether the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces - the political opposition group recognized by many countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and commonly named the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) - will even travel to Switzerland. The coalition had made several demands for their participation, including the guarantee that Assad will not be part of the new government. Since this is one of the biggest concessions for the regime, and it might be a red line, this demand cannot be met before the negotiations start. Despite getting no guarantees upfront, the SNC announced on Saturday evening that they would send a delegation to Geneva, although they remained heavily divided on the issue. This commitment was made before Ban Ki-Moon announced on Sunday evening that he had invited Iran, who also accepted the invitation. An official spokesperson of the SNC reacted with a tweet announcing that the SNC would not come anymore, unless the invitation to Iran was withdrawn. However, whether the SNC comes this time or not, at some point peace talks will truly begin. When they do, it is important to keep the following five things in mind:
1. Geneva II is a process
The language surrounding the upcoming peace talks seems to be one of ‘make or break’ and of an extremely pivotal moment in the conflict. While having a starting point of peace dialogue is absolutely a striking development, Geneva II is only one of many necessary steps towards peace. Geneva II basically started months ago and will continue for months, mostly in the form of two track diplomacy. Although a likely scenario is no discernible outcome from Geneva (see points 2-5 below), just having a scheduled follow up meeting, including an agenda, would be a major breakthrough. High expectations will even make marginal steps appear like failure, while taking marginal steps would actually represent significant progress.
2. Both sides lack legitimacy, but Assad has power
The general expectation is that the talks are between two parties warring in Syria and that a popular revolution has radically changed into a simple conflict between the regime and the opposition. It would be a mistake to see either side as monolithic. It is now common knowledge that there are many fighting groups that make up – and sometimes even oppose - the opposition. But the Assad side also consists of different groups with their own interests.
The key question concerns representation and legitimacy. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has been recognized by many countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but many Syrians do not feel represented.
The same is true for the regime. Certain minorities might feel safer with the regime in place, it does not mean that these groups condone the violence or recognize themselves as part of the regime. The continued indiscriminative violence by the army against the civilian population is continuing to undermine the regime’s credibility. Lack of legitimacy is a crucial concern for both sides, which undermines the peace talks. Building legitimacy of the parties and, more importantly, of the peace talks, is part of the process.
An important early step in that process, which would also greatly enhance opposition legitimacy, is a cessation of hostilities. A ceasefire is unlikely to happen before the meeting in Geneva and is one of the topics on the table. Unfortunately, the SNC is clearly at a disadvantage, since it seems to have very little operational control over the armed groups in Syria itself and could therefore not credibly call an opposition ceasefire. How can the SNC make any commitment of behalf of these groups? The answer is most likely none as has become abundantly clear during the road towards Geneva, with the public rift between for example the SNC and the Free Syrian Army about participating in Geneva or not.
Early demands for the SNC during the talks will have to center on enhancing their legitimacy and which are realistic as obtainable goals, for example by humanitarian corridors. These corridors will help the Syrian populations and provide credit for the talks, while at the same time a refusal would weaken the credibility of the regime. The international supporters of the SNC should do their utmost to help the SNC achieving this demand.
The SNC brings little power and legitimacy to the table, whereas power is the very reason for the regime as a negotiating actor. The military capacity of the Syrian regime is still very much intact and it continues to control the more populous areas of the country. It is important however that despite recent military gains by the regime it is unlikely that a military victory will happen any time soon if possible at all. This probably gives an incentive for talks for the regime. However, peace negotiations have a much higher chance of success when the parties in the conflict feel they have reached a mutual hurting stalemate
, a status quo in which a military victory is not near and which is painful for both parties. Such a stalemate is not in sight. The regime’s power has even been bolstered in the past six months. For the talks to have any chance of success, the SNC has to get more power, either by becoming more unified with the fighting groups in Syria or by having the threat of an outside intervention back on the table, whether by committing forces or by supplying arms.
3. Certain factions have no interest in the talks and will try to spoil the process
As said above, the two parties at the table are not monolithic. Both sides have more moderate and more extreme members. The latter will do their upmost to upset any progress for peace talks which would fall short of an all-out victory, so called spoilers. The spoilers are more clear on the opposition side. Islamist extremists like ISIS have no interest in negotiation whatsoever. But also more moderate forces inside Syria are opposed to talks and can create a situation in which continuing talks can be difficult. If the international community would not demand it from the SNC they would not participate, partly because of the power of the spoilers inside their camp.
Also on the regime side, there are signals that certain elements are more willing to participate in talks than others. In a highly publicized murder of a British doctor in a regime-controlled prison, speculation was rife that the murder was a message for Assad, who had agreed to release dr Khan, from certain security forces concerning Geneva, since the UK is an important sponsor of the conference. If true, the assassination was perhaps the clearest example of spoiler behavior so far. Unfortunately and paradoxically, we can expect more of these violent statements if Geneva II is successful from the start and talks continue after 22 January.
4. There are many countries with interests in the Syrian conflict
The Syrian conflict is a difficult puzzle to solve, especially because of the many international actors involved. Initially 30 countries would participate, but ten more countries were invited at a later stage. The five members of the UN Security Council, neighboring countries, regional powers - except for Israel - but also for example Brazil, Mexico, the Vatican, Denmark and South-Africa, have been invited to the start of the peace conference as well as three representatives of international organizations (High Representative of the EU, Catherine Ashton, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Nabil ElAraby, and Organization for Islamic Cooperation Secretary-General Iyad bin Amin Madani).
The Syrian conflict is not just a battlefield with groups supporting or opposing the regime; it remains also a regional power conflict with a religious undertone with Saudi-Arabia/ Qatar on one side and Iran on the other. Saudi-Arabia and Qatar have clear differences as well and both strive for dominance. Turkey is playing its own role, which can be partly explained by the Kurdish presence in Syria, but also the desire to be the regional leader and bridge-builder. And the instability in Syria is a major security concern for Israel.
It never started as a religious conflict, but with the rising importance of groups as ISIS, the religious element has been more and more evident in the public eye. It has a major impact on the behavior of many non-regional actors. Countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the UK, France and others have nationals fighting as Jihadists in Syria, triggering security concerns. What happens if these warriors return to their home countries?
And Syria is an international political conflict, where (former) global powers fight over supremacy, literally and ideologically. The most obvious would be Russia which has in Syria one of its last stalwart allies in the Middle East. National interests are at stake in relinquishing that influence. Another might be France who sees Syria as part of the Francophone world. The ideological struggle is more about having an international regime which allows active international intervention during humanitarian crisis or when a government of a sovereign nation is unable to protect its people (responsibility to protect).
The US in principle leads the interventionist camp, Russia and China the non-interventionist camp. National interests and political contexts tend to dominate decision-making more than ideological debate, which means that the US might lead the interventionist camp, but is not likely to intervene.
All these actors influence different elements in the conflict. Some of them might even be (in support of) spoilers, since they absolutely do not want to deal with Assad in the future. The international actors have even less legitimacy in determining the future of the Syrian people, but they do have power. An extremely important part of the Geneva II process will be negotiations between these countries. An unified international community will enhance the chances for peace.
5. Before a negotiated settlement can be reached, a reset of minds is necessary
The most difficult element in any peace negotiation is the mindset of the negotiators and their constituency (the people they represent/ claim to represent during the talks). Horrid acts of violence have been committed by (elements of) both sides (although the level and scale of violence by the regime against civilians is much worse than that those of the opposition) and, as noted, will continue to be committed during the peace talks. These crimes increase fear, resentment, revenge, etc. The idea that anyone can negotiate with these ‘criminals’ is extremely difficult to understand, let alone, to accept.
Negotiating with ‘them’ also seems to justify the acts of violence. It impedes on the necessary trust for talks and makes a final outcome more difficult to accept for the Syrian people, because peace might be served with an agreement, but how about the memory of the fallen and other victims: how about justice, it is often asked. Add to that mix the mindset of the revolutionary, which is very much present within the SNC and even more so within the Free Syrian Army.
The whole uprising started with the aim of the overthrow of the regime. Any negotiation with the other side is a betrayal of the revolution; an admittance of defeat and hence unacceptable (see also the work by I. William Zartman on the Arab Spring in PINPoints #37
The same is true for the regime, which for decades has responded to opposition by pacifying it very early on or crushing it with any means necessary. To now go for a negotiated settlement could easily be seen as a defeat for the security forces, which make up the bulk of the regime’s power; an option which is impossible to even comprehend and very much unacceptable as well, for its leadership.
The process of any successful negotiation will involve changing these mindsets; to go from thinking dominated by a shadow of the past to a shadow of the future. It would mean recognizing one another as viable negotiation partners and to persuade the majority of the constituency as well. Only with a reset of minds the negotiation will be ripe for an agreement.
Success is possible
The above may convey a sense of hopelessness and impossibility for the peace negotiations. It is important to realize though that historically speaking this can be said at the start of every peace negotiation which is not based on a clear military victory. Although the Syrian conflict is in many ways unique in both the intensity of the violence and the number of (international) actors involved, both South-Africa and Northern-Ireland have shown that success is possible. They also show that peace is always a work in progress, not a single moment in time. The road ahead for Syria is extremely difficult, and failure will be lurking in every corner, but is not a foregone conclusion.
About the author
Wilbur Perlot was involved in negotiation training for the SNC. He is Senior Training and Research Fellow working for the Clingendael Academy, specializing in international negotiation training. He is also the coordinator of Clingendael’s negotiation research network, the Processes of International Negotiation (PIN), which is wrapping up two major studies relevant for the conflict in Syria. Georgia University Press will publish “Intifadat; Negotiations in the Shadow of Social Movements”, edited by I. William Zartman, in the first half of 2014. Springer has the project by Valerie Rosoux and Mark Anstey on reconciliation and preventive negotiation scheduled for the second half.