There have been multiple diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict since it erupted in 2011 but all have ended in vain. No agreement was reached or set out in a final document at the recent 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 a peaceful solution to the conflict that should be reached through a dialogue. But still, up to now, no diplomatic effort in the case of Syria proved successful. Even this failure of diplomacy raises a question mark on the United Nations’ credibility, as it was involved in every failed peace talk directly or indirectly. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Syria has exposed the reality of a twentieth-century UN struggling to respond to twenty-first century challenges in which it finds itself in a helpless state when responding to regional and international proxy wars such as Syria.
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 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 based on every United Nations peacemaking effort since 1945 found that such efforts succeeded in resolving two-thirds of conflicts in which 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 happening in case of Syria. The Syrian conflict has multiple dimensions, with many parties involved. Syria has become the theater for a battle between Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran, between the West (along with its Arab and Turkish allies) against 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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and sections of his own people has become a wider regional struggle. In the Syrian case, it’s becoming very hard to get a peace deal that is acceptable to everybody.
The two superpowers, the United States and Russia, are supporting different parties in the conflict, but 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 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 multilayered format. It should include every party in the conflict; It is essential for key regional powers including, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to accept the need of militarily disengagement from the Syrian conflict and that a broader regional sectarian conflagration is not in anyone’s strategic interests. Behind these powers, the Arab League, the United States and Russia had 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 the UN Special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s proposal of thematic working groups. Mr. Mistura originally envisioned four such groups that would sound out Syrian actors and there sponsors on discrete issues, instead of trying to conclude one single peace and transition deal for all of Syria. Moreover “talk while you fight” arrangement can also be tired.
It certainly won’t end the war, but it can perhaps limit human suffering, allow for constructive engagement across the front lines on isolated issues, and pave the way for more meaningful political dialogue later on.