UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, second from left, and other diplomats attended peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, in March 2017.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, second from left, and other diplomats attended peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, in March 2017. Xu Jinquan / Pool Photo via AP

What Syrian-Peace Negotiators in Geneva Must Learn from Russia

Unless this latest round acknowledges battlefield reality, the UN-sponsored talks will continue their slide into irrelevance.

The latest round of Geneva-based intra-Syrian peace talks opened on Tuesday with little hope for a breakthrough, because the Syrian regime and the opposition begin at an impasse over whether President Bashar al-Assad might be deposed while his grip on power remains firm. Essentially, this is the opposition’s largest priority, a nonstarter for the Assad regime, and a near-perfect obstacle to progress.

Contrast that with the de-escalation agreement signed earlier this month in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Russia has not hesitated to do so.) While the long-term sustainability of the plan remains questionable, the Russian-led negotiations generated multilateral support for immediate steps to reduce hostilities between regime and opposition forces, and forged consensus between the Syrian government and three of the conflict’s principal external actors.

If the Geneva talks are to retain any credibility and avoid surrendering the diplomatic initiative over Syria’s future to Russia, the negotiators must acknowledge and proceed from battlefield realities.

The same applies for the United States. Since President Trump’s election, the U.S. has taken a more passive role in the Geneva talks, and has sent mixed signals regarding its priorities for a negotiated settlement. While the opposition has consistently maintained its objection to Iran’s role in the de-escalation agreement and has continued to insist on Assad’s departure as a precondition for a settlement, the new U.S. administration warmed to the idea of Assad remaining in power, although it quickly reversed its position following April’s chemical attacks.

Still, the U.S. has expressed cautious support for the Astana deal, which leaves Assad in power. Last week, meetings between President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that the U.S. might even collaborate with Russia to implement the zones, although that budding cooperation evaporated after the State Department declassified evidence of Assad’s atrocities against Syrian civilians.

Bottom line: unless the U.S. is willing and able to substantially increase its commitment to changing the balance of power on the ground, Assad’s government will remain the dominant force, and Russia and Iran will continue to shape Syria’s future political order. Refusal to accept this reality has been a major impediment to progress in the Geneva negotiations. 

Now, with Russia at the reins of the only productive diplomatic process, and sparse evidence of political will for a decisive U.S. military intervention, Washington has little leverage over the Assad regime. What it does have is the potential to exert diplomatic pressure on the Syrian opposition and its external supporters to accept and adapt to the harsh realities on the ground. However, the Trump administration’s inconsistent policy toward Syria continues to fan false hope that the West will eventually oust Assad, and gives the opposition the pretext for refusing direct talks with the regime—the first step to de-escalating violence in the country.

Russia’s dominant role in the Syrian peace process does not negate the importance of the United States’ contribution—even if it is minimal. In fact, the potential for diplomatic progress represented by the Astana talks highlights the importance of U.S. engagement. Credible guarantors are essential to the success of the Astana agreement, and de-escalation is more likely to succeed if it is backed by a U.S. or U.S.-allied guarantor to match Russia, Iran, and Turkey. A lasting negotiated agreement will require both the regime and the Syrian opposition to relinquish maximalist demands and engage in direct dialogue. If properly implemented, Russia’s de-escalation zone plan will force the Assad regime and the opposition toward mutual recognition. But both Russia and the United States must help bridge the gap between the belligerents’ negotiating positions — in Geneva as well as Astana.

The Astana process and the Geneva process must continue simultaneously with the understanding that both are complementary. The Astana talks will likely remain the best pathway for managing the details of a negotiated ceasefire and stabilization of the humanitarian crisis, especially if the United States becomes an active participant and the guarantors act in good faith. The Geneva talks remain an important, though largely symbolic, representation of international approval and action toward Syria, and any solution in Syria will ultimately need the approval of the UN Security Council. However, any viable political solution must begin with mutual recognition between the parties and be based on the realities on the ground. The UN, U.S., and the Syrian opposition must all take a more pragmatic approach to these negotiations, or risk being sidelined.