By Patrick Lim
On January 25, representatives of the United States, Russia and other world powers will convene in Geneva for the latest peace talks regarding Syria. This will be the first meeting since UN Resolution 2254 that focused on creating a roadmap for a peace process in Syria, which was unanimously adopted in December. The resolution states that all parties involved will seek to support a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and to establish a “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance [structure]” within six months and for free and fair elections, pursuant to a new constitution, to occur within 18 months. Though this resolution may appears to be the first major step towards an end to a violent civil war, the international community should be pessimistic not only about the timelines it sets forth but also about the UN’s and other world powers’ will to see it through and affect real change.
The UN has earned a bad reputation in recent years regarding inaction in Syria. The report “Failing Syria,” which was signed by numerous aid agencies, criticized the actions of states and the failure of the UN to implement previous resolutions pertaining to Syria, namely numbers 2118, 2139, 2165, 2191 and 2204. All of these resolutions except 2204 were agreed upon unanimously. Furthermore, the UN’s reputation has recently come into question because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Madaya. The town in southwest Syria, close to the border with Lebanon, was the subject of a flash update in early January, which discussed “desperate conditions” in which people were dying of starvation. Food costs rose astronomically, with rice costing as much as $256 per kilogram. There are reports that the United Nations knew about the dire situation for months but were only prompted to act when images of starving children started appearing in news outlets.
Brookings Fellow Michael O’Hanlon expressed his doubts over Kerry’s peace talks. He believes that forcing outside powers to halt arming combatants will cause Assad’s and the Islamic State’s power to solidify, simultaneously harming groups like the Kurds. Therefore, any ceasefire and formation of a new government will “not be built on the foundation of military balance. It would be built on a foundation of sand.” There would be no enforcement mechanism and no body to ensure legitimacy. Furthermore, the new “Syria” would demand high numbers of American soldiers and UN peacekeepers. O’Hanlon argues that the most realistic approach would be to establish a country with autonomous regions, with one or two for the “intermixed cities from Aleppo to Damascus.” He ends by assering that the international community should focus more on the three necessary parts he lists to ending war and finding a feasible political model, given that everyone is still under the illusion that the peace talks will achieve something.
The countries represented in the talks also casts doubts over the sincerity of these talks. In what has been described as a “rare display of unity among global powers,” a close advisor of Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, said that Damascus was ready to join UN-sponsored peace talks. Moreover, there are reports that the talks could break down over a dispute regarding the Kurds. The Russians demand that PYD, the political arm of the Kurds, be invited as part of the rebel delegation, which has been opposed by Turks and other powers, as they believe the PYD is not “the real opposition.” Yet, the party that will have the most influence over the talks is another point of contention. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish Prime Minister, was recently quoted as saying that Turkey has the right to a decisive influence over the talks because it hosts 2.5 million Syrian refugees, making it “the second largest Syrian country in the world.” He believes that the conflict is a serious domestic issue that could affect his country in the long term if the right solution is not found. The Prime Minister stated that with Assad in Damascus, no Syrian refugee will repatriate.
Therein lies another problem with Resolution 2254 and the upcoming talks; nowhere in the resolution does it mention the future of Assad. While the deposition of Assad may be a longer-term goal of the United Nations, the body has to ensure that his advisors are not able to assume positions of power too. If so, we may see a situation similar to Egypt post-Mubarak, in which the people had to choose to vote between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and former associates of Mubarak, thus forcing them to elect the former.
If the UN resolves the issues pertaining to representation at the talks and appeases Turkey, the pathway to peace is still not simple. It will take decades before the Syrian Civil War comes to an end: the war is not only between rebel groups and forces loyal to the governments but also terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Resolution 2254 also affirms that all “Member States [must] prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL… and [must commit] to eradicating the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria.” Again, we must be pessimist: the UN Security Council cannot expect to have a new constitution with free elections and a new government within 18 months if the terrorist groups still have a strong presence in the country. Furthermore, even if the international efforts are able to push all terrorist activity out of Syria, the Council will then have to deal with terrorism in Iraq and fear that groups could focus attacks on reclaiming Mosul. Caution must be exercised in the event that any strategies undertaken to achieve Resolution 2254 and peace in Syria may be perceived by many as further involvement of the West, inciting attacks that could take place on Western soil. Questions also have to be raised on how to tackle the groups’ ideology, which will no doubt persist in the country even if the main actors have been dismissed.
In order to achieve peace in Syria, the UN Security Council must stick to the language of the resolution: there must be a “Syrian-led political process.” While the UN may moderate, it must ensure that it does not overstep. However, it must also take steps to rebuild its reputation and ensure that the future of Syria is moving in the right direction – that is, without Assad and his regime. Without taking the proper steps, the peace talks scheduled this year are doomed, much like all previous efforts to end this bloodiest of civil wars.