In the second round of Geneva II talks, the government agreed to a temporary ceasefire in Homs, and a lifting of the blockade, in order to allow citizens to flee if they wish, and to allow some aid and provisions to enter for those who remain. Immediately following this concession on the part of the government, the United States and its allies attempted to push a Chapter 7 resolution through the U.N. Security Council. Under the auspices of enforcing this agreement with the Syrian government, the resolution would have placed nearly the entire blame for the conflict and subsequent atrocities on the Baathist regime, and could have paved the way for direct military intervention, via R2P, to “change the balance of power on the ground.”
Russia and China declared this proposal dead on arrival, with Lavrov accusing the United States of obstructing the peace process in Syria through their continued insistence that the only acceptable end to the conflict is al-Asad’s departure, and through their continuing to raise the prospects of military intervention.
One cannot help but feel a sense of déjà vu:
In March of 2012 the United Nations became involved in trying to broker a peace deal in Syria. Between March and June, the U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan served as an intermediary between the government and the opposition and successfully brokered a number of ceasefires and concessions from the warring sides. These efforts were in part hampered by the FSA and SNC’s lack of control over the civilian militias, which made ceasefires difficult to enforce. However, Annan came to see that the primary driver of continued conflict in Syria were outside powers, particularly the United States, insisting that the only acceptable outcome to the conflict was al-Asad’s immediate departure—that this should be a precondition to any negotiated settlement—all the while keeping alive rebels’ hopes for a military intervention a la Libya to ensure regime change if negotiations failed.
In June of 2012, Annan drafted the Geneva Communique which enshrined the concessions the parties had agreed to in the previous negotiations and laid out a roadmap for a Syria-driven process of reconciliation.
Importantly, while the Communique did obligate the government to transfer executive authority to an interim transitional body, it did not bar al-Asad from taking part in that body, nor did it bar him from future participation in the government or elections. Moreover, it was equivocal in assigning blame for the conflict, although it made it clear that the government, as the more robust actor, has a greater responsibility in helping restore order. Annan then had the primary international stakeholders in the Syrian conflict sign onto this agreement—they were its intended target. The purpose was to get the international community to agree to this process, and therefore, to stop interfering with negotiations or perpetuating the conflict.
However, the very next day after signing onto agreement, the United States and its allies attempted to push a Chapter 7 resolution through the UNSC which, in defiance of the Communique, placed the blame for the conflict squarely on the al-Asad regime, and could have laid the groundwork for a military intervention if the conditions of the resolution were not sufficiently and expediently met. China and Russia vetoed the measure, with Pakistan and South Africa abstaining. Annan was outraged by this maneuver on the part of the United States, which he saw to be a betrayal of the agreement Western powers had just signed—and the move which, in his mind, ultimately killed the negotiations process.
Following the failed bid in the U.N., and angry Susan Rice proclaimed that the U.S. and its E.U. and regional allies would have to “work around” the United Nations, henceforth, to get the outcome they wanted (it is worth noting that most of these regional allies are monarchies, often repressive; accordingly, their supposed desire to bring “democracy” to Syria is immediately suspect). Thereafter, these parties began to fund, arm, provision, and train rebel militias—and as in the case of Libya, most of these resources ended up in the hands of bad actors who flooded Syria precisely in response to this influx of assets and the potential for Libya-style “regime change.”
Buoyed by the renewed prospect of international intervention, and the new influx of resources and fighters which began to tip the tide in the rebels favor in certain areas, the SNC and FSA outright refused further negotiations or ceasefires unless and until al-Asad resigned—parroting the position of their foreign backers. Following this surge in foreign aid and fighters, the situation in Syria rapidly deteriorated. The U.N. was forced to withdraw its observers, and Annan resigned from his position in disgust—saying, as Sheikh al-Khattib would later echo at the time of his resignation as president of the SNC—that the external forces backing the rebels had little interest in saving Syria and were primarily interested in their own geopolitical gains.
Since then, the United Nations has repeatedly called upon the U.S. and its allies to stop arming and funding the opposition on the grounds that it will only prolong the conflict and make any eventual settlement more difficult to enforce (especially given the opposition’s lack of control over these arms or over the rebel militias, as evidenced most dramatically by the civil-war-within-a-civil-war taking place in Northern Syria). These please have fallen on deaf ears.
It is a false-equivalence to claim, as rebel apologists are wont to do, that Russia and Iran are doing the “same thing” in providing weapons, supplies and money to the al-Asad regime. There is an important legal and philosophical difference in supporting a government in quelling a foreign-backed uprising as compared to said foreign powers funding and provisioning non-state actors against a government.
There is another asymmetry insofar as it is critical for the Syrian state to remain viable; its disorderly collapse would be an unmitigated disaster which would radically exacerbate, rather than quell, the conflict. The U.S. and the opposition have even come to begrudgingly accept this. Accordingly, aid which keeps the government intact, be it military or otherwise, should be understood as critical for the stability of Syria—as an important component in making any eventual agreement or reforms possible to meaningfully implement.
Accordingly, the idea propagated by political “scientists,” to push the government to the brink of collapse in order to get a “better” deal is lunacy–in no small part because it presupposes that the U.S.-led coalition would be able to successfully pull the situation back from the edge and prevent a collapse: over the course of the conflict, American policymakers have shown that they do not understand the dynamics in Syria, rendering U.S. interests opaque (as well as the means to promote said interests). All of their projections have failed; all of their tactics have backfired. The idea that they could somehow control a complex and fluid situation of which they are almost totally ignorant and misinformed, and with the incredible finesse such a strategy demands, is ridiculous. It is also unclear what a “better” deal would mean in this context: better in what sense? And for whom?
Certainly, they are not seeking a “better deal” for the Syrian people, who have overwhelmingly sided with the government over the rebels by any reliable measure. For years now, I have demanded my interlocutors to provide any credible empirical evidence that a majority, or even a plurality, of the population supports the uprising—what I’ve gotten in return is empty rhetoric and shallow anecdotes (and this is in those rare cases they respond to the question directly, which they usually try to avert altogether).
As I pointed out in my (all-too-brief) interrogation of Matthew VanDyke, most of these cheerleaders have the luxury of being so idealistic and uncompromising in their support of the rebellion because they are not currently living in Syria (if they are Syrian at all) and do not have to directly bear the consequences if it actually succeeds. The overwhelming majority of those who do have to face the “day after” and the years after seem to have a radically different evaluation of the conflict: they want it to be over as soon as possible, and they want the government to prevail. Therefore, the most important asymmetry between Russia and Iran supporting the Syrian government, vs. the West and the Gulf supporting the rebels is that it is the former who seem to be promoting the will and interests of the Syrian people.
Regardless of whether or not the Syrian government can reach an agreement with the “opposition,” if the Geneva conference can result in Western powers and their allies at long last complying with the provisions of the Geneva Communique, ceasing their perpetuation and escalation of the conflict—this would be the greatest outcome conceivable in helping to wind down the crisis in Syria. It was the task the Communique was designed to accomplish. The talks are not about Syria–they are about making subsequent policies by external actors with regards to the conflict about Syria rather than their own perceived interests.