The U.N. is throwing yet another desperate Hail Mary for peace in Syria and the eventual removal of Assad. Too bad Russia and Iran have other plans.
- By Frederic C. HofAmbassador Frederic C. Hof is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related matters in the U.S. Department of State from April 2009 until September 2011.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s indefatigable special envoy for Syria, is at it again. On Wednesday, he reconvened peace talks in Geneva between a “government” dominated by a mafia-like family and an “opposition” whose own core constituency, after years of civil war, remains unclear.
De Mistura seems to believe in diplomatic alchemy: trying to convert the base metal of Russian and Iranian military support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad into the gold of a political transition that can stabilize the country and stop it from disgorging human beings. Spare a prayer for his efforts; it’s not clear he has one. Those who oppose real transition — Russia, Iran, and their client, the Assad regime — have raw power on their side.
The Geneva talks are rooted in an agreement reached in 2012 by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and others. They agreed that the Syrian government and opposition should negotiate the creation of a “transitional governing body” that would assume “full executive power” from the Assad regime and oversee Syria’s transition from family rule to a pluralistic democracy. Nothing in the agreement prevented Assad himself from leading or participating in the transition. All that was required was the consent of the opposition. “Mutual consent” — a more positive way of saying “mutual veto” — would shape the composition of the transitional governing body.
Meanwhile, in the nearly four years since the June 2012 Geneva agreement, the Syrian death toll has spiked from 17,000 to at least 15 times that number. In 2013, Iran brought foreign fighters from Lebanon to save Assad from military defeat. In 2015, Russia brought aircraft and special forces to Syria to save him again.
Tehran needs Assad to help sustain its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. No other Syrian leader would accept such a demeaning task. Moscow needs him as its poster boy for governments allegedly being undermined by a Washington regime-change campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin dreams of making his American counterpart — the man who called for Assad to step aside in August 2011 — a junior partner of the Syrian dictator in the war against the Islamic State, the terrorist group that has succeeded in filling a vacuum thanks to the regime’s mass homicide campaign against civilians.
Washington’s focus in Syria is on beating the Islamic State. Although there has been no shortage of rhetoric decrying the Assad regime’s war crimes, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has taken zero steps to protect Syrians from his human eradication program. So much for “never again” and a “responsibility to protect.” The leader of the most powerful nation on Earth fears that, if he so much as lifts a finger to protect civilians, he will be sucked into a quagmire. His Russian counterpart, presiding over a shrinking economy now the size of Spain’s, has shown no such fear. Claiming to intervene in Syria to fight “terrorists,” Putin instead focused his air power on anti-Assad rebels and civilians, tilting the negotiating table in Geneva very much in favor of his murderous client.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tells all who will listen that the Islamic State can be defeated in Syria only when the Syrian army and rebel forces unite against it. He argues, quite accurately, that there can be no unity in Syria with a war criminal at the helm. And he hopes, quite plaintively, that Moscow and Tehran will agree with him and compel their joint client to negotiate in accordance with the Geneva 2012 rules and step down when a transitional governing body forms. He hints, quite unconvincingly, that there may be a “Plan B” if they don’t.
For de Mistura, the task is daunting. A monthlong reduction in violence is wearing thin. Assad’s forces defiantly block U.N. humanitarian convoys and oversee the “election” of a powerless, order-taking “parliament.” His minions say their boss’s status is not up for discussion. Assad himself has claimed, without so much as a smile, that political transition is not consistent with the Syrian “constitution.” (It bears noting that Article 53 of that document states, for the record: “No one may be tortured or treated in a humiliating manner.” No matter.) Still, de Mistura’s catechism is the Geneva 2012 agreement, which calls for a transitional governing body to be created by the mutual consent of Syrian negotiators.
Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are not always on the same page in terms of strategy and tactics. Yet they have one thing in common: keeping Assad in power. For Tehran and Moscow, it would be for as long as he is needed and not a day longer. For Assad, president for life seems more attractive than defendant in The Hague.
Kerry and de Mistura have impressive powers of persuasion. They will need them all and then some. Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are in charge. Unless the disembodied, leverage-free logic of Washington prevails, Syria will be hemorrhaging its people for the foreseeable future. The prospect for a negotiated political transition is not in the hands of those who want it but in the hands of those who have opposed it. For the Geneva talks to succeed, those who have facilitated mass murder must now voluntarily act with decency and wisdom. If nothing is impossible, this comes very, very close.
Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images