The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution, on December 18th, which purports to set out a framework and timetable for ending the nearly five year war in Syria and establishing an “inclusive and Syrian-led political process.” Negotiations between selected opposition groups and Syrian government representatives are slated to begin in January. Within 6 months, a transition government with full executive powers is supposed to be established. Within 18 months, under the terms of a newly drafted constitution to be negotiated, UN-supervised “free and fair” elections are to take place. There is also supposed to be a parallel UN-monitored ceasefire in Syria, while the political talks are underway, except with respect to the ISIS-controlled territories where military efforts to degrade and destroy ISIS will continue. As many UN resolutions do, however, this resolution papers over key issues still dividing the warring parties. The elephant in the room – the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – was sidestepped, completely.
Hours of last-minute negotiations among the countries comprising what is known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) took place at a Manhattan hotel before agreement was reached on the final wording of the Security Council resolution. The Obama administration is thrilled. So is Hillary Clinton, who said during the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday that, thanks to the UN Security Council resolution, “We now finally are where we need to be” in the fight against ISIS and in “bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.”
Unfortunately for President Obama and his wannabe successor, agreement on the UN resolution has not suddenly created a Road to Damascus moment. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who along with Secretary of State John Kerry cosponsored the ISSG discussions, said, “I’m not too optimistic about what has been achieved today.” Even Kerry conceded the limitations on what the resolution has accomplished: “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated.” Furthermore, refusing to admit that the Security Council resolution simply kicked the can down the road with regard to the major issues, Kerry said, “This is not being kicked down the road; it’s actually being timed out.” In full spin mode he added that “this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”
The parties who will be representing the fragmented opposition at “the table” are still being sorted out. And whether they will actually agree to sit down at the same “table” across from Assad’s hand-picked negotiators, while Assad himself remains in power during a transition period, remains a big question mark.
Moreover, beyond treating the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra group as “terrorists,” who will not be invited to participate in the Syrian negotiations (as if they were the least bit interested), no consensus among the ISSG participants has yet emerged on all of the other groups considered “terrorists.” Iran, an ISSG participant, is unlikely to accept the designation of its surrogate Hezbollah, which is operating in Syria in support of Assad, as a terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey, another ISSG participant, deems the armed Syrian Kurds, who are fighting alongside the United States against ISIS, to be terrorists.
Jordan has been assigned the responsibility to compile a list of groups that could qualify as “terrorists,” with few criteria to guide it. The result so far is “very contradictory,” Lavrov said.
As for the armed opposition groups who will participate in the talks, they agree on only one thing – get rid of Assad. However, the jihadists and the secularists who will be participating in the political negotiations have nothing else in common. They are far apart on what kind of political system Syria should develop. The secularists’ desire for a pluralistic, secular government is in direct opposition to the jihadists’ insistence on an Islamic state based on sharia law. These goals are fundamentally incompatible with each other. The Assad loyalists with whom they will supposedly negotiate want simply to hold onto the status quo. Combined with the fact that ISIS, and al Nusra, will not be participating in the talks at all for obvious reasons, the political dialogue envisioned by the Security Council resolution has little chance of succeeding.
The display of camaraderie by Kerry and Lavrov at their joint press conference following the Security Council vote did not mask the stark differences remaining between Russia and the United States on Assad’s fate and the approach to dealing with “terrorism.”
Kerry charged that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting opposition groups fighting Assad, not ISIS. He added that “sharp differences” remain on Assad’s fate. Although U.S. demands for his immediate departure have been dropped, Kerry said that no viable political reconciliation will be possible with Assad still in office. “Assad has lost the ability … to unite the country,” Kerry added. Kerry’s logic is that the best way to get the political talks going and agree on a common strategy to defeat ISIS is for the opposition to have confidence going into the talks that Assad will not remain in power for very long.
Lavrov insisted that only the “Syrian people themselves can determine the future of their country.” He characterized, as “very dangerous logic”, the view “that without solving the Assad question it is impossible to carry out a coordinated fight against terrorism.”
“We hear what our colleagues are telling us,” Lavrov said. “Let’s start political process so that those who want to oust Assad get some hope that they might achieve this result. And then they’re saying we’ll be able to coordinate with you our fight against terrorism. It is very sad that once again our common task – and that is putting an end to terrorists – is becoming a hostage to one personality.”
In his remarks in the Security Council chamber, Lavrov warned that “Attempts to separate terrorists into good and bad are unacceptable.” Russia agrees with the Assad regime’s position that there are many more “terrorists” operating in Syria than just ISIS and al Nusra.
The framework devised by the International Syria Support Group and endorsed by the UN Security Council reaffirms, in the words of the resolution, a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Conditions on the ground, however, call into serious question the ability to hold together a unified Syria free of the Islamic State caliphate. The situation is devolving into separate enclaves of Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds. But setting up mini-states on the former Yugoslavia model will have its own serious challenges to overcome in the Middle East caldron. Nevertheless, no options should be taken off the table.
Western style democracy is an alien concept in Syria. Since its independence in 1946, Syria has experienced multiple coups and has been held together by strongmen, most recently by Bashar Al-Assad who is now losing his grip on major parts of the country. He had originally tried to implement some reforms and even brought the Muslim Brotherhood back into politics from its outlawed status. But it wasn’t long before Assad tightened his grip on the country and cracked down hard on dissent. Assad’s crackdown started years before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still referring to him as a “reformer.” She did so even as the long civil war in Syria began in 2011, quoting members of Congress who had visited Syria. One of those visitors, by the way, was Hillary’s successor as Secretary of State, John Kerry, who as a senator said that “President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had.”
Whom would Kerry now be comfortable with to lead Syria in Assad’s place? A member of the Muslim Brotherhood like former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who tried to turn Egypt into an Islamic theocracy and was overthrown by a military strongman? A “reform” member of Assad’s party who is beholden to Iran? No doubt, if Kerry had his way, he would like to see a secularist committed to an inclusive, pluralistic Syria become the new president. Assuming there is such a person who would survive the election, there are too many stakeholders inside and outside the country to tolerate such an outcome for very long.
Just like with the Iran nuclear deal and the climate change agreement, the Obama administration loves to devise diplomatic panaceas that more often than not turn out to be placebos.