Five years ago Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country would be spared the popular uprisings that had taken place in Tunisia and Egypt. “Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident to say that you have anger, but this anger feeds on desperation,” he said, calling on fellow Arab rulers to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations.
Assad’s unwillingness to heed his own words when an uprising erupted six weeks later has led to the death of approximately 300,000 Syrians and the destruction of countless cities and towns. Today, at least half of the country’s territory is controlled by the Islamic State in eastern and northern Syria, while the remaining half is contested by the government and forces opposed to it.
More important, the president’s disconnect with reality at the time appears to be echoed by the international community today, as the two formal warring sides in Syria embark on peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations. The discussions began in Geneva on Friday, with the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee confirming its attendance at the last minute.
This round of talks could be different from previous attempts. The current discussions come after an international consensus reached by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well as the regional backers of the two sides for a “Syrian-led and transition-focused negotiations in January” and, in parallel, determining the requirements and modalities of a nationwide ceasefire. They also follow an agreement by the political and armed opposition, reached in Saudi Arabia in December, to endorse the political track.
This internal, regional, and international consensus is a renewed opportunity to steer the country toward a political settlement, or at least to a better trajectory. For now, however, that prospect seems dim, particularly as Washington appears to be bowing to Moscow’s demands that favor the Assad regime. The success of this process hinges on the opposition’s confidence that the United States is a partner capable—as it says it is—of balancing out Russia’s increasing commitment to the regime.
Both parties come into the peace talks from a somewhat realistic standpoint. The opposition, for example, does not believe the process will lead to a meaningful political outcome, but it views the greater involvement of the regime’s backers in the conflict as an opportunity to press for some demands, mostly ceasefires and humanitarian access. Despite Russia’s vicious air campaign, discussion about ending sieges, bombings, and starvation campaigns is now more possible. The opposition wants the U.S. and the U.N. to increase pressure on the regime and its backers to comply with the plan the Security Council’s five permanent members have already endorsed. The opposition hopes to get something out of the talks without making concessions that keep Assad in place and without risking increased international and regional pressure if they reject involvement.
The regime, on the other hand, aims to consolidate the perceived shift among the opposition’s international backers toward the conflict in recent months. The U.S. has all but abandoned any talk of Assad’s removal and has focused instead on achieving political progress to turn the parties’ attention toward ISIS. The regime wants to turn the peace talks into the only legitimate track that international and regional backers of the opposition can endorse. Damascus and Moscow know that without ending the military aid provided to the rebels, the government cannot win, and are thus capitalizing on Washington’s desire for progress, any progress, to bolster their position on the ground.
For the regime and its backers, the political process is just a process that they can exploit. Given Washington’s inability to press for progress on the humanitarian and military fronts, they have everything to gain from the negotiations and nothing to lose.
The perception that the U.S. is making compromises that favor the regime or not doing enough to pressure the regime and its backers to lift sieges and stop bombing civilian areas should change. The United States needs to do more to change this perception.
Disputed but widespread reports that Secretary of State John Kerry hinted to the opposition that aid would be halted if it did not go to Geneva could erode any credibility the administration still has among the rebels. These reports are reinforced by its apparent abandonment of the demand for Assad’s removal, in addition to concessions made to Russia—including opposition figures widely seen as close to the regime in the negotiations, creating a list of armed groups for possible designation as terrorist organizations, neglecting foreign Shi’a militias. Russia’s push for designation of major rebel groups as terrorists was barely resisted by the U.S., and even Moscow’s recognition of the Free Syrian Army’s western-backed Southern Front as oppositionists rather than extremists did not stop it from bombing them despite clear warnings by Washington.
The persistence of the Russian-led military campaign inside Syria, the acceptance of many of Moscow’s demands in Geneva, and the rush for a botched process without tackling the pressing humanitarian situation as stipulated by the Security Council Resolution 2254 deepen the opposition’s suspicion that they are heading to a surrender and thus undermine the process upon which the U.N. members agreed.