- By Lisa RomanLisa Roman was senior advisor to the U.S. special envoy for Syria from 2013 to 2015 and director for Syria at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017., Alexander BickAlexander Bick is associate director and a fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served as director for Syria at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2016.
The United States appears to have given up on finding a comprehensive political settlement to Syria’s civil war. The topic has not been on the agenda for recent U.S.-Russian talks on Syria, which instead have focused on deescalating violence on the ground, and U.S. officials privately admit that they prefer to invest their efforts in projects with a higher chance of success — brokering limited ceasefire agreements, deconflicting counterterrorism operations, and shoring up America’s most important Syrian partner, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
This approach is broadly consistent with Syria policy in the last two years of the Obama administration, with one critical difference: By publicly declaring that the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no longer a priority for the United States, the Trump administration has tacitly accepted that Assad is here to stay. What it has not done is offer a vision for reconstituting the Syrian body politic with him in place.
That leaves unaddressed a number of questions that have important implications for the United States and its regional partners. Assad may have defeated the bulk of the mainstream opposition, but the country itself is fragmented into multiple, semiautonomous parts that will continue to defy central authority. How will these parts be reintegrated? Will foreign troops, including from Iran, remain in Syria indefinitely? Will refugees who wish to return be permitted to do so? Is the government willing to make concessions and provide assurances sufficient to convince multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, to contribute to national reconstruction and development?
Resolving these questions is essential if we are to avoid a renewed escalation of violence, prevent Syria’s partition, and restore regional stability. And it will require a political process that the Syrian government is both unwilling and unable to credibly lead on its own.
Yet, the Trump administration continues to publicly back the moribund Geneva peace process. In early October, representatives from the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government will return to Geneva for another round of U.N.-mediated talks. Those talks are unlikely to make substantive progress, and everyone knows it — not only because of the wide divergence between the parties’ respective agendas, but because the process itself is deeply flawed. It’s time to replace Geneva with a more inclusive set of negotiations that better reflects reality on the ground.
The flawed logic of the Geneva Communiqué
Composed in the wake of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s failed six-point peace plan, the Geneva Communiqué was signed by nine countries and the secretaries-general of the U.N. and the Arab League on June 30, 2012. It aimed to stop the escalating cycle of violence and establish an agreed framework for negotiations to reach a comprehensive political settlement. In practice, this meant trying to narrow the gap between Russia’s call for dialogue with the Syrian government and the desire of the United States and others to see a negotiated transfer of power to a transitional governing body with full executive authority, composed of representatives of the government and opposition.
The awkward compromise between these positions is reflected in the stipulation that agreement on the form and composition of a transitional government would be “by mutual consent,” a clause that facilitated adoption of the communiqué, but at the expense of granting each side an effective veto. The communiqué was otherwise silent on the fate of Assad. Whereas, until recently, the United States insisted that “mutual consent” was impossible without his departure, Russia has maintained publicly from the beginning of the conflict that Assad’s fate is a matter for Syrians to decide, even while repeatedly offering private assurances that Moscow “was not wedded to Assad.”
The communiqué did not prescribe a specific structure for the negotiations themselves. During a series of trilateral meetings between the United States, Russia, and the U.N. in the second half of 2013, the participants agreed that negotiations would be between two parties: the Syrian government and a representative delegation from the opposition. The logic was relatively simple: As the two most influential external actors involved in the conflict, the United States and Russia were responsible both for pressing their respective clients towards compromise and for bringing along their respective regional partners — Iran, in the case of Russia; the Gulf States and Turkey, in the case of the United States.
This approach has not worked. Despite the dogged and admirable efforts of the two U.N. envoys responsible for facilitating the Geneva process, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, as well as U.N. Security Council backing, negotiations were stillborn. The communiqué offered important principles to guide a transition, and the first round of talks in February 2014 helped to establish the political opposition’s legitimacy. But Assad was never likely to engage seriously in negotiations that could lead to his removal, and Russia did little to compel its client. Led by its pugnacious U.N. permanent representative, Bashar al-Jaafari, the government delegation maintained a posture of stubborn intransigence throughout successive rounds of talks.
While the opposition insisted on discussing a political transition, the government insisted on discussing terrorism — a broad label it applied to any group opposed to its rule. Meanwhile, the opposition consistently struggled to reconcile the competing interests of its various patrons and to assemble a unified delegation that could credibly represent the interests of the more than a thousand armed groups operating in Syria.
Instead of encouraging compromise, the Geneva process incentivized escalation by external patrons on both sides who sought military advantage on the ground in order to improve the standing of their respective clients at the negotiating table. Many argue that President Barack Obama — who sought to avoid the consequences of a disorderly transition or collapse of central authority akin to the experience of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — was never prepared to provide the support necessary to test Assad’s resolve. But the underlying logic of this criticism is empirically suspect.
In fact, major shifts in the balance of power on the ground never led the weaker party to meaningfully alter its negotiating position. Quite the contrary — when the Syrian military was on its heels in early 2013, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah came to its defense; likewise, advances by opposition groups in the spring of 2015 precipitated a Russian invasion to prop us Assad.
In retrospect, Geneva’s binary, adversarial structure was ill-suited to resolving the Syria conflict — and has only become more so as the battlefield has changed.
The problem with the status quo
Critics of the Geneva process argue that we’re better with it than we are without it. If a comprehensive political solution is beyond reach, many Syrians believe Geneva still offers an important forum in which small, tactical progress may be possible, and it serves as a procedural vessel for a future deal in the event of a change in military or diplomatic circumstances. By virtue of its international legitimacy, Geneva’s continued existence also acts as a counterweight to Russian-led talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.
These arguments make a compelling case that a U.N.-led process for Syria is still needed. But they overlook the costs of maintaining the status quo. First, by limiting talks to the government and opposition, the Geneva process continues to empower the most hardline elements of the conflict, at the expense of a broad swath of Syrian society that has long called for an end to violence. Second, by indulging in what amount to Potemkin negotiations, the United States and its allies are ceding the political field to Assad, and squandering the little leverage they still possess to press the Syrian government to accept the basic political reforms necessary to begin reunifying the country.
Some analysts do believe Syria simply cannot be reunified under Assad. That may be correct, but a diplomatic strategy based solely on biding our time is extremely unlikely to result in Assad’s removal and almost certain to accelerate the centrifugal forces that are already resulting in Syria’s de facto partition.
Designing a more inclusive process than Geneva won’t be easy. At various points over the past three years, Russia has proposed expanding participation in the Geneva talks, but this was motivated less by a genuine commitment to the principle of inclusion than by a cynical desire to undermine the coherence of the opposition delegation.
Part of the problem also lies with us. Despite lobbying from various Syrian groups that do not consider themselves to be either on one side or the other — including not only civil society, women, and business leaders, but also the increasingly powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant group within the SDF — the United States has long refused to expand the Geneva format. Unless the demands of the hardline elements in the opposition were addressed, it was argued, the fighting would continue, even if agreement was reached. And, while important to an eventual political solution, the PYD was (and remains) unacceptable to our ally Turkey, which views the group as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a designated terrorist organization.
Today, the SDF is arguably the second strongest military force on the ground, after the Syrian government and government-aligned militias. It has been the United States’ most effective counterterrorism partner in Syria, controls large swaths of territory, and poses the clearest challenge to the Syrian regime’s publicly stated aspirations to reassert control over the entirety of Syrian territory. For these reasons alone, the SDF deserves a voice in any political process. Including the SDF also could make it harder for the group to reach a separate settlement with Damascus, an outcome that could complicate U.S. counterterrorism operations.
By contrast, Syria’s mainstream armed opposition has now largely been destroyed. Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 decisively shifted the battlefield momentum, culminating a year later in the opposition’s expulsion from Aleppo. Where it once had many friends, the opposition increasingly finds itself isolated, with fewer and fewer vocal supporters for its insistence that Assad must go. The hard reality is that nearly all of its main state sponsors have at differing points over the last six years come to the conclusion that Assad’s ouster is a lower priority than other strategic objectives.
This message was driven home by President Donald Trump’s public confirmation via Twitter on July 24 that the United States had ended a covert program that reportedly provided vetted opposition groups with hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and cash. With the mainstream opposition increasingly eclipsed by extremist and terrorist groups, the logic of Geneva means that what little leverage we have is, at least indirectly, tied to the military performance of groups that are openly hostile to the United States.
Nevertheless, in recent weeks discussion has once again turned to how to reform the Syrian opposition’s delegation in Geneva. In late August, Riyadh hosted a series of meetings between the High Negotiations Committee and other opposition groups to encourage a unified approach to the negotiations. Those meetings reportedly failed as a consequence of the Committee’s insistence that Assad immediately step down from power.
Instead of trying to convince the Syrian opposition to moderate its stance, the United States should be laying the groundwork for an alternative to Geneva.
An alternative way forward
A different process, with a different structure, might shift the focus away from Assad, while amplifying the voices of those calling for political reform, including among Syrians close to the government on whose support Assad will increasingly rely as Syria transitions from wartime mobilization to politics. While expectations should be held firmly in check, such a process might also create a framework in which the United States and like-minded countries could collectively employ nonmilitary sources of leverage, such as our influence over the PYD and SDF, the prospect of lifting international sanctions on the Syrian government, and sending the political signals that will be necessary to unlock multilateral financial assistance for reconstruction.
We know from experience how difficult it will be to find a comprehensive solution. There is no silver bullet, and abandoning Geneva carries its own risks — especially if there isn’t agreement in advance on what would replace it. Before diving into something new, it will be critical both to rigorously test assumptions (lest we end up with an equally unworkable process) and ensure that key allies and partners would offer diplomatic support. Those discussions will take time and should begin now.
One possibility would be to encourage the U.N. to expand participation in the current process, essentially replacing indirect talks between the government and opposition with a series of direct talks among a broader range of actors. This would give official recognition to the many Syrian groups the U.N. has already been engaging on the margins of Geneva, including the PYD and representatives of Syria’s business community, religious and ethnic minorities, women, and civil society — groups who may be less rigid in their views, more in tune with the wants and needs of the average Syrian, and more successful in rallying both elite and popular support around specific reform measures.
Alternatively, the United States could encourage the U.N. to replace Geneva with a U.N.-led national dialogue. The goal would be to create a venue to discuss Syria’s political future and reach agreement on core issues, such as demobilization and the withdrawal of foreign forces, a new constitution and parameters for national elections, administrative decentralization, the release of prisoners, and mechanisms to facilitate refugee return. The record of analogous exercises — for example in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, is mixed. But, by generating broad-based dialogue outside of formal government institutions, over time such processes can play an important role in shaping national politics.
Following a recent string of military victories, Assad is riding high, and Damascus almost certainly will resist any effort that it sees as restricting its sovereignty. Assad also may believe that Geneva is valuable in so far as it provides continuing cover for the government’s piecemeal efforts to end the war on its own terms.
It may be worth testing whether Russia agrees — especially if a new U.N.-led process is presented as the price for international acquiescence to Assad’s continued rule and a precondition for any discussion of international assistance, something Russia seeks. Despite its staunch support for the Syrian government, Moscow likely perceives more clearly than does Assad the multiplicity of challenges that lie ahead — from the government’s unsustainable fiscal position and chronic manpower shortages to the acute political divisions and demographic trends that helped cause the war in the first place. As a consequence, Russia might be convinced that a new process could serve its interests, and could help cut the timeline for its own commitments in Syria.
Neither is a perfect solution. But they would shift the discussion from war to politics, and potentially set into motion a process that could begin healing the rifts from Syria’s terrible war. The United States could decide to keep up the charade in Geneva, but if we want to see greater stability in the years ahead, we need to change course.
Photo credit: ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images