Best Chance Yet

05.16.13

Why Now Is the Time For Syria Diplomacy

A peaceful and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis is not within reach in the short-term. But a significant reduction in the violence and bloodshed can be achieved because the appetite for diplomacy is stronger now than at anytime in the past two years. The peace summit prepared by the U.S. and Russia can achieve this if they bring all the parties to the table.

What started as peaceful struggle for political reform in Syria has been hijacked by geopolitical rivalries at the regional and global levels. Today, it is above all a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the U.S. and E.U. on the one hand, and Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the Assad regime on the other. Several factors has led to a situation in which the desire for diplomacy among most of these parties is at a climax.

First, despite expectations of imminent downfall, the Basher al-Assad regime has managed to survive and even regain military momentum. Whereas talks could have provided Assad with an undeserved lifeline in the past, there is a different perception of the regimes sustainability today which in turn has reduced the perceived risk of talking.

Moreover, Assad’s military gains and the likelihood of it having used chemical weapons has strengthened the chorus of voices demanding U.S. military intervention at a time when the U.S. is dead set against such a move. Few factors would strengthen the President's ability to resist military intervention than a productive diplomatic process.

As the push for military action has increased, so has Obama's appetite for diplomacy.

Similarly, Assad's side is realizing that while the Syrian regime can survive, it cannot prevail. At best, it can hold on to territory around Damascus, Homs and the areas bordering Lebanon. Indeed, it has focused on ethnically cleansing those areas of Sunnis to create an Alawite mini-state. Tehran’s interest, in turn, is not necessarily to hold onto all of Syria, but to secure Iran's link to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There are indications that Tehran is inclined to pursue a compromise precisely because it realizes that a complete Assad victory isn't in the cards. Moreover, the continuation of the conflict further adds to Tehran's massive soft power losses in the region and strengthens the Sunni-Shia narrative as the meta-frame for all regional conflicts. While Tehran and Assad currently enjoys a better negotiating hand due to recent military gains and the international community's Syria fatigue, they realize that this momentum can easily be lost.

“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during a visit to Jordan on May 7. “We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” he added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq.

Similarly, supporters of the rebels such as Turkey and Jordan recognize the increased risk of the conflict spreading into their own territories. Even if violence and radicalism don't cross the border, the cost of the refugee crisis is becoming unbearable for them.

This leaves three elements with more questionable attraction to the idea of talks: the Free Syrian Army’s preference is to compel the West to intervene militarily; negotiations would be tantamount to succumbing to the idea that Assad can survive and that some form of temporary coexistence is unavoidable; the rebels correctly fear that once the violence has reduced, the likelihood of Western intervention will lower as well. The rebels are not ready to even tactically relinquish the objective of destroying the Alawite core of the Syrian state. Moreover, while negotiations may not affect the stream of support Al-Nusra receives from the Persian Gulf Arab states, potentially leaving the FSA weaker vis-à-vis foreign fighters.

Saudi Arabia and some of the Persian Gulf states interests in Syria that arguably render the idea of negotiations unattractive. First, the bloody experience in Syria has served as deterrence against further uprisings challenging sitting dictators in the Arab world. After Syria, few populations are as eager to risk civil war for the sake of political change.

Second, the uprising in Syria is bleeding the Iranians dry in every sense of the word. Tehran is loosing funds, arms and, perhaps most importantly, influence throughout the Muslim world due to its commitment the survival of the Assad government. No measure has been as successful in making the Shia-Sunni narrative stick at the popular level than the images of Tehran supporting Assad’s slaughter of Sunnis. The longer this goes on, the more Iran’s rivals in the Persian Gulf benefit.

Finally, the spread of Salafi radicals is a problem for the region as a whole, including some of the Arab states that directly or indirectly fund them. In Saudi Arabia, reports have emerged that the state itself is killing two birds with one stone by actively encouraging radicals to join the fight in Syria. Whether the radicals get killed or kill Assad forces, the Saudi state wins.

The Israelis also disfavor negotiations at this point, particularly if they include Iran. While the continuation of the fighting may carry with it a high price for Israel—since Al Qaeda strengthens its presence on Israel’s borders—the Jewish state is also opposed to any outcome that enables Tehran to salvage its bridge to Hezbollah. Including Iran in the solution to Syria will also reduce Washington’s commitment to confronting Iran on the nuclear issue, Israel fears.

At the same time, there are significant limitations to what talks can achieve. Neither power-sharing nor a transitional government is realistic. At best, talks can help significantly reduce the bloodshed—which in and of itself is a worthy objective at a time where people are being slaughtered in the thousands simply to sustain an unsatisfactory stalemate.