November 2, 2015
Analysts have different opinions on the Vienna meeting of October 30, 2015. I believe that the communique issued constitutes a significant development not only for the Syria conflict but also for the entire Middle East because the participants have agreed as a first point that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.”
This is the first explicit reference to secularism in the context of the Syria conflict. It may even be the first ever reference to the principle in agreed international documents regarding conflicts in the Middle East. This in itself is an accomplishment.
UN Security Council resolutions on Syria and the Geneva communique have all referred to the equality of Syrian citizens regardless of their affiliations, ethnicities or beliefs but “secularism” was the forbidden word. Forbidden because in the broad Middle East with the exception of Turkey, secularism has been distorted as atheism by reactionary circles whereas it could have been the antidote to sectarian strife and an enabler for enlightened progress. Even in Turkey attempts to erode secularism have never ceased. In other regional countries conservative opposition has been so strong that peoples have never had an opportunity to even discuss the principle although some Arab leaders have at times adopted policies of secular nature without mentioning the concept. Agreeing to include a reference to secularism in the Vienna communique must have been a bitter pill for participating Arab countries and Iran albeit a critical one.
The Vienna meeting was held more than three years after the Action Group for Syria issued the Geneva communique of June 30, 2012. Paragraph 8 of the communique reads as follows:
“8. Action Group members are opposed to any further militarization of the conflict.”
The conflict was not only further militarized but a good number of the signatories also became part of the problem through proxy wars. Now they are expected, once again, to help revive a political process which had never got off the ground. The Vienna communique says that “this process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.” Only time will tell if the participants would allow for that.
The communique states that “State institutions will remain intact.” This shows that the lesson from Iraq and Libya were taken into account.
It says that Da’esh and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated. Agreeing on the “others” and action to be taken against them may not be easy.
Bringing peace to Syria and the wider region remains a herculean task. Of all the countries involved in the Syria conflict Turkey continues pay the highest price with more than two million refugees, lost security, lost trade, the prospect of a fragmented Syria and strained relations with the US, Russia, EU member states and regional countries. If the Vienna meeting rekindles the Geneva process, this may present Turkey with yet another opportunity to change course on Syria. However, a resounding election victory on Sunday has given the Justice and Development Party (JDP) a fourth mandate with a parliamentary majority. Thus any adjustment in Turkey’s Syria policy remains a distant possibility except for pressing external factors.