February 3, 2016
The road map for Syrian political transition which the UN Security Council (UNSC) approved through Resolution 2254 envisaged the Syrian government and the opposition engaging in formal negotiations in early January 2016. It also envisaged a nationwide ceasefire, establishing of non-sectarian governance, drafting of a new constitution, free and fair elections within eighteen months.
These negotiations were officially launched on Monday, not “in early January” as the target date had been set in UNSCR 2254, and not last week as it had been previously reported. A delay and a rocky start were only to be expected in view of the conflicting interests not only of the warring parties but also of Russia and Iran on one side and the US and her regional allies on the other side. It was clear by all indications that reaching consensus on the list of terrorist organizations would be a challenge. With thousands of fighters in ISIL’s rank from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow is very strict in this respect whereas countries dead set against the President Assad appear to be more flexible with the exception of Turkey’s strong objection to the PYD which she considers an affiliate of the PKK. A second major difficulty was securing agreement on who would represent the opposition. It is common knowledge that even the sponsors of anti-regime forces are far from being genuinely united in this respect. And, less than perfect links between the groups which are actually doing the fighting and their representatives also contributes to a complicated picture. The number of people speaking on behalf of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) is only reflective of the organizational problems of the opposition. Since the process was launched in the form of proximity talks with the UN Special Envoy acting as go-between and representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition sitting in different rooms, the details of who and which groups “formally” participated in the talks, who were “consulted” and who had the opportunity to express his/her opinion to Mr. de Mistura inside and outside these rooms would remain under thick fog.
The reason for the delay was the refusal of the Saudi supported HNC to participate in proximity talks until government sieges of rebel-held towns were lifted, bombings were stopped and prisoners released. Actually, UNSCR 2254 calls on the parties to immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria by most direct routes, allow immediate, humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need, in particular in all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, release any arbitrarily detained persons, particularly women and children. And, it demands that all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects. These calls give President Assad the opportunity to be at least selectively generous and score some much needed public relations points but it remains to be seen whether he would seize it or focus on gaining and maintaining the military upper hand.
UNSCR 2254 also envisages a ceasefire to come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards a political transition under UN auspices. So, agreeing on the modalities of a ceasefire and its monitoring will be the next big hurdle.
Last Friday, Staffan de Mistura made a direct personal appeal to the people of Syria to take charge of their destiny. This depends, first and foremost, on Syria’s warring parties grasping that what is at stake is Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Yet, there would be those who would prefer keeping their turf rather than compromise.
The “Syrian-led” political process has thus been launched under unfavorable circumstances. And unfortunately, relations between major powers “which can make a difference when they join efforts” have not been inspiring either.
The conclusions of the British inquiry into the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko were made public on January 21, 2016. The chief of the inquiry, Sir Robert Owen, a retired High Court judge, said that the operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was “probably” approved by Mr. Patrushev and President Putin. Mr. Patrushev, at present the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, was the head of intelligence at the time. A few days later, Adam Szubin, who oversees US Treasury sanctions, told the BBC that the Russian President is corrupt and that the US government has known this for many years. This was followed by reports indicating that the Obama administration plans to substantially increase the deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and other equipment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe to discourage Russia from further aggression in the region. And on January 26, Foreign Minister Lavrov, at a news conference on Russia’s diplomacy performance in 2015 stated the following:
“Our Western colleagues sometimes say testily that there will be no ‘business as usual’ with Russia. I am certain that this is the case, and we agree with them on this point: indeed, there’ll be no “business as usual” when they attempted to impose on us agreements that heeded primarily the interests of either the EU or the US, and sought to persuade us that this would not harm our interests. This story is over. A story is beginning that can only develop on the basis of equality and all other principles of international law.”
Of course, ending the Syrian conflict is not just about striking a deal between the Assad regime and the opposition. There is also the question ISIL which again requires US-Russia cooperation. And, this is what the New York Times reported on January 21, 2016:
“… As diplomats from Russia and the United States work to bring Syria’s government and its domestic opponents to peace talks next week, the two countries are jockeying for position on the ground in Syria in a battle that will continue regardless of any peace deal: the fight against the Islamic State.
“Both powers seem to be presuming that the peace effort will fail and digging in for the next phase of war. Their separate, and competing, new efforts against the Islamic State are part of a parallel battle over who will lead the fight against the extremist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and possibly take credit for defeating it…” (*)
To conclude, a word on the refugee problem: The assaults against women in Cologne and continuing threats of new terrorist attacks in Europe have provoked public fury, including a backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming asylum-seekers but the flow will remain unstoppable so long as regional turmoil continues. European response to the refugee problem has only brought to light EU’s inability to take a united stand in the face of a major challenge. Instead of putting pressure on Turkey and Greece and trying to strike refugee bargains the EU needs to engage in some soul searching regarding the position it took vis-à-vis Arab Spring developments; why it intervened in Libya and why it became a party to the Syrian conflict. The same goes for Turkey. Four years ago, Turkey did not have two-and-a-half million Syrian refugees, a refugee controversy with Europe and a PYD predicament. Now we have all three and internal/external security problems linked to those. The US, Europe and Turkey have grossly miscalculated President Assad’s capacity to survive. Being a neighbor Turkey could and should have known better. Unfortunately, we are a country with a short memory and all those pretentious and out of touch with the reality “opposition meetings” held in Istanbul with a view to ensuring the ouster of Assad within months, if not within weeks have been conveniently erased from public memory. And, on top of everything, the leader of the so-called opposition is now calling for the downing of another Russian plane rather than advising caution, common sense and measures to prevent such incidents…
The refugees are no doubt fighting for survival and a better life for their children. They are desperate, disoriented and angry. Yet, they must get organized, find ways and means of projecting a positive image and promote greater awareness among themselves regarding their obligations to their hosts (**). They may have lost the war in their own countries but have no other choice than winning the battle for integration wherever they are.
(*) “Russia and U.S., While Pushing for Peace Talks, Jockey for Position in Syria”,
Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt, January 21, 2016.
(**) Obligations of the Refugee, 15 September 2015