Syrian peace talks fail as Assad makes military gains
Feb 11, 2016
Update from AIJAC
February 11, 2016
Number 02/16 #02
In the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has been making major gains of late, thanks in large part to Russian assistance, and looks likely to regain most or all of the parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which it had lost to rebel groups over recent years. Meanwhile, last week’s peace talks in Geneva, on which the US and other members of the international community had placed most of their hopes, failed to achieve anything and have been suspended. This Update is about the nexus between these two pieces of news.
We lead with veteran American diplomat Amb. Dennis Ross, who discusses the conference and reality in Syria with a focus on the motivation of Russian President Putin. Ross says it is clear that diplomacy failed because the Russians never had any intention of implementing the so-called “Vienna Principle”, vague guildlines for a diplomatic process leading to a political transition, and have simply used the diplomatic process to strengthen the position of the Assad regime militarily. Moreover, Washington and the West, in their eagerness to push diplomatic talks and thus restrain the rebels, appear to the Syrian opposition and its Sunni allies to be assisting the Russian program. Ross calls for measures to push back against Russian efforts – especially the establishment of safe haven in northern Syria. For his important analysis in more detail, CLICK HERE.
Next up is top Israeli academic specialist on Syria Prof. Eyal Zisser, who argues that the push for a diplomatic conference on Syria was a mistake which has made things worse. He notes that in the current situation – where, with Russian backing, he is winning – the Assad regime was never going to compromise, and indeed, Assad, together with Iran and Russia, believe the only way to achieve their goals is via “blood and fire, subduing his adversaries and cleansing Syria not only of the rebels fighting against him but also of the population that supports them.” Zisser says the supposed peace negotiations made things worse by giving the regime and its allies “ both legitimacy and time to complete their war of extermination” which will only worsen Europe’s refugee crisis. He also makes a comparison between the failed Syria peace conference and France’s efforts to convene an international conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace. For Prof. Zisser’s full argument, CLICK HERE. A look at how Israeli strategic experts are viewing the regime advances around Aleppo is here.
Finally, two further former senior American diplomats – Amb. Nicholas Burns and Amb. James Jeffrey – explore in more detail the benefits of creating a safe haven in northern Syria. They argue that this measure is not only essential to doing something about the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and stemming the refugee flows, but it is also necessary – along with other measures – to strengthen the currently weak US leverage in the Syrian negotiations. They go on to discuss the mechanics of how it could work, and the risks and dangers – but also the risks of inaction. For their complete discussion, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- More on the details and military analysis of the Assad regime’s advances comes from Washington Institute expert Fabrice Balanche.
- Meanwhile, Jordan worries about Assad regime advances at the other end of Syria, in the south, with the retaking of the town of Sheikh Miskin. In addition, David Schenker warns that the massive numbers of Syrian refugees in Jordan – and the inadequate international aid – is starting to threaten the political stability of the Hashemite kingdom.
- Prior to the latest round of talks on Syria in Geneva, both Michael Singh and Andrew Tabler warned that Washington’s approach was leaving it with little leverage, meaning success was very unlikely. A video comment on Washington’s problematic Syria policy comes from Max Boot.
- Arab analyst insists the only way things can move forward on Syria is if the US returns to its earlier insistence that Assad must go.
- Noted columnist Sohreb Ahmari explains in a book review how the Assad regime played a major role in creating ISIS.
- Strategic expert Thomas Karako discusses how Iran’s nuclear program may well be benefiting from North Korea’s latest missile test.
- Isi Leibler gives his views about an intense debate now occurring in Israel about whether Israeli forces should be acting now to preempt Hamas’ building tunnels into Israel from Gaza for terror purposes. More on this debate is here and here.
- Former Australian Minister Peter Baldwin discusses the debate in the Australian Labor Party about Israel and the Palestinians in an interview with Graham Richardson on Sky-TV yesterday.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Four new video clips from AIJAC guest and Israeli strategic expert Prof. Efraim Inbar: On the state of the Iranian nuclear deal; on Israel’s response to the recent wave of stabbing attacks; on the Islamisation of the eastern Mediterranean; and on Israel’s growing relationships in Asia.
By Dennis Ross
Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2016
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has for years been trying to produce a diplomatic process that could not just alleviate the suffering in Syria but, in time, end the conflict there. Not long ago, he was optimistic that his efforts were bearing fruit. So much so that after the November talks in Vienna, when Russia and others agreed that negotiations should begin in January, be accompanied by a cease-fire and culminate in elections after an 18-month transition process, the secretary declared: “We’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition in Syria.”
Unfortunately, there has been no big transition in Syria — and now, with Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy, calling for a pause in his indirect talks, there is no negotiating process. The reason is quite simply that Russia agreed to the so-called Vienna principles without having any intention of implementing them. Indeed, at the very moment the negotiations were to start, the Russians intensified their bombing and even used “Spetsnaz” special forces to back regime and Iranian/Hezbollah offensives around the country.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s priority had been the diplomatic process, he would have acted to promote the cease-fire, not increased the tempo of Russian military operations. He would have conveyed to us that he would stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from using barrel bombs and force him to open humanitarian corridors for food and medicine.
Moreover, if the Russians had actually been willing to stop Assad from using starvation as a tactic, the opposition might have believed that a transition from the Assad clique was possible. Instead, even as Kerry pressured the non-Islamic State opposition to come to the talks or lose American assistance, the Russians were increasing their operations in support of Syrian military and Iranian/Hezbollah offensives. These operations were designed to strengthen the Assad regime and weaken the non-Islamic State Sunni opposition in different parts of the country: in the Alawite heartland around Latakia, in the south around Dara, and in the north by cutting Sunni supply lines across the Turkish border to Aleppo — attacks that are triggering a new mass exodus of civilian refugees.
The nature of the Russian strikes makes clear that Putin was not just trying to improve Assad’s leverage before negotiations. No, he was intent on changing the balance of power fundamentally on the ground and sending a message to Arab leaders. Namely: You may not like our support for Assad, but unlike the Americans we stand by our friends. If you want to deal with problems in Syria or in the region, you deal with us.
Putin aims to demonstrate that Russia, and not America, is the main power broker in the region and increasingly elsewhere. And he is leaving no doubt that his priority is to use the Syrian conflict for his purposes — not to pave the way for an end of the war. Certainly, were Russia’s costs to increase, Putin might look for a way out. But for now, he’s convinced that we will not — directly or indirectly — provide the types of arms to the opposition that would significantly raise the military costs to the Russians.
Leaving aside the prospects for continued warfare in Syria, Putin is also undercutting our aim of isolating the Islamic State and having Sunnis lead the fight against it. (The Islamic State is a Sunni group.) Sunni-led governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan won’t seriously join the fight against the Islamic State so long as there appears to be a war against their coreligionists in Syria. And that is what they perceive today as Russia hits non-Islamic State Sunni opposition targets and the U.S. strikes ever harder against the Sunni Islamic State.
Rather than being opposed to the Russian efforts, we look to be in league with them. We press for the diplomatic process even as Russian military strikes undercut the prospects for diplomacy. If we want the Sunnis to join the fight against the Islamic State, it is time we make it clear to the Russians that unless they impose a cease-fire on Assad and Hezbollah and insist that humanitarian corridors are open, we will have no choice but to act with our partners to create a haven in Syria — for refugees and for the organization of the Syrian opposition.
The last thing Putin wants is a haven. Staunching the refugee flow would give the Europeans less reason to look to Putin to solve the Syrian crisis and their refugee problem — and, thus, reduce his leverage on them to drop sanctions over Ukraine. Organizing a less fractured opposition on Syrian territory could, meanwhile, raise the costs of supporting Assad militarily.
So a haven could be a lever on Putin to change course and would show Sunnis we were acting to protect the Sunni population in Syria. It is, however, not risk free, and we cannot threaten to create a haven without following through if Putin refused to alter his course. But we also have to be honest about our strategy toward Syria today: Unless we are prepared to use more leverage against what the Russians are doing, we will not have Sunni partners, and there will be little prospect of diplomacy working.
Dennis Ross is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, and author of the book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” (http://washin.st/1l7H41v).
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Israel Hayom, Feb. 9
France’s renewed threats to convene an international peace summit, aimed at advancing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has diverted attention from another peace summit the French sought to advance — along with other Western countries, chief among them the United States. We are talking, of course, about the peace conference to resolve the war in Syria, which blew up in the faces the French and the other participants. And even worse — it blew up in the faces of the millions of Syrians trying, as these very words are being typed, to flee Syria and escape the onslaught of Russian airstrikes and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s soldiers, backed by Iranian forces.
The Syrian peace summit teaches us what to expect when various countries try concocting a solution to the Palestinian issue; but mostly we can learn that the naiveté, not to mention the cynicism, displayed by the international community are liable to hurt the very people that such a summit purports to be trying to help.
From the beginning, Assad was never serious about reaching any sort of agreement with his opponents. After all, how can an agreement be reached when the opposition wants Assad’s head and Assad wants to continue ruling solo over whatever is left of the Syrian nation? In recent months, however, Assad, with indispensable help from Russia and Iran, has managed to change the tide of the war and restore his rule over most of Syria, including the Golan Heights.
Under these circumstances, Assad certainly has no interest in reaching any agreement or compromise with his rivals. From his perspective, and from the perspective of his Iranian and Russian partners, the only solution can come from blood and fire, subduing his adversaries and cleansing Syria not only of the rebels fighting against him but also of the population that supports them. Essentially this has meant exiling eight million Syrians, and now, with the Syrian army’s recent success on the battlefield, another two or three million refugees. Thus, Assad will ultimately retain power over a country in which over half the population has fled.
Anyone willing to confront the reality of the situation could have seen this coming. But Western states were always intent on believing their own illusions. Military intervention with the goal of saving the Syrian people is out of the question, as we all know. The option was never truly on the agenda, not even in the earlier stages of the fighting when such an undertaking would have been simpler and would have had greater, even if not great, chances of success. The Americans aren’t even interested in confronting Russian aggression. On the other hand Washington needs to appease some of its Arab allies, but mostly it needs to give the world the impression that something is being done about the unfolding tragedy in Syria.
Meanwhile, Europe today is in despair over the refugee crisis, which will only get worse in the coming years. Indeed, the millions of Syrian refugees will be joined by millions of Sunnis from Iraq, whom the Iraqi government will sweep out under the guise of fighting the Islamic State group. Europe’s despair, therefore, has given rise to the futile idea that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will magically cure the region of its ills, eradicate ISIS and reverse the flow of refugees back to the Middle East.
All these factors formed the pretext for convening a Syrian peace summit, which was based on a detailed road map that was adopted by the U.N. Security Council as a binding resolution. But what can you do when road maps and the realities on the ground are two very different things. And what can you do when the Russian foreign minister is drawing up road maps with other diplomats while Russian warplanes are carrying out hundreds of airstrikes a day, chasing millions of Syrian from their homes to clear the path for Assad’s advancing army.
Looking back, the ongoing blathering about peace in recent months has not only failed to end the war in Syria, it has made it worse. It has granted Assad and his allies both legitimacy and time to complete their war of extermination, and also, we must admit, score results on the ground.
And now that the main effort to secure a peace in Syria has failed, and in light of a proven track record of millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands killed, the West is now turning to its next project — an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit.
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Of the critical global challenges faced by the Obama administration in its final year, Syria may be the most confounding.
The brutal Syrian civil war has reached a crisis point, with more than 250,000 dead and 12 million Syrians homeless. The cancer of this war has metastasized into neighboring countries and the heart of Europe. It could destabilize the Middle East for a generation.
We believe that President Obama can no longer avoid providing stronger American leadership to reverse this tidal wave of suffering and violence in the Levant. U.S. strategic interests and our humanitarian responsibilities as the worlds strongest country dictate a change of strategy, as well as of heart, in Washington.
Where the administration has done well, led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, is to launch new negotiations for elections, a transitional government and a cease-fire. Those talks will be difficult to sustain, however, and diplomacy alone is unlikely to be effective.
Where the United States has fallen short is in framing a clear, consistent and forceful strategy for it to play its traditional leadership role in the Middle East. As a result, it is in an uncharacteristically weak negotiating position. The stronger party is the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis supporting Bashar al-Assads brutal regime through indiscriminate bombing and starvation in besieged cities. As former career diplomats, we believe diplomacy is most often effective when it is backed by clarity of purpose and military strength. Those have been noticeably absent in U.S. policy toward Syria.
For that reason, the administration should take steps to reinforce U.S. strength in the difficult negotiations ahead in Geneva. It should dramatically expand funding for the moderate Sunni and Kurdish forces that pose an alternative to Assads government and the Islamic State, while asserting active, daily leadership of a strengthened coalition including Turkey, our European allies and the Sunni Arab states.
As the talks proceed, Obama and Kerry must also consider stronger measures to protect millions of civilians at risk, including establishing humanitarian corridors to reach those subjected to air assaults by the government and attacks by terrorist groups on the ground. Most important, we believe the Obama team will have to reconsider what it has rejected in the past: the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, along with a no-fly zone to enforce it.
While the U.S. military has the experience to decide how to create such a zone, one option could be to locate it over 25 to 30 miles south of the Turkish border, with links to areas held by Syrian Kurdish rebels. Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.
The White House could press Russia, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to help organize and protect the zone. The zone would be far more durable and credible with Russian support, and if Russia rejected the proposal as it probably would the administration and its partners would be in a much stronger position to take the initiative themselves.
The benefits of a safe zone are manifold. It would be the most effective way to support Syrian civilians and to diminish the flow of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. It would strengthen our ability to work closely with our key regional NATO ally, Turkey, which has long advocated this step. For the first time, it would restrict the operations of the rampaging Syrian air force the largest killer of civilians in the conflict. It would also hinder the use of military power by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah against the resistance.
We do not minimize the extraordinary difficulty of establishing such a zone in a civil war. Defending the zone, preventing it from being overwhelmed by refugees, grounding it in a convincing legal justification and keeping out jihadist groups would be daunting tasks. The United States would also need to make sure its air operations did not conflict with those of Russia. Once a zone were established, we do not believe Russia would challenge the stronger U.S. and NATO forces, particularly if they were operating mainly from Turkey.
Our experience as diplomats suggests that the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zones soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states. Those countries could also contribute air power and missiles, to be organized by NATO from Turkish territory, to police the no-fly zone.
Taking the lead on this initiative would carry dangers for the United States. But critics must also weigh the risks of inaction which may include thousands more killed, millions more refugees, the spread of the war to U.S. allies such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel and a Russian-Iranian military victory.
The two of us have worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. We have observed that when the United States leads with confidence and determination, when we form big and effective coalitions, we have a much greater opportunity to be successful in complicated regions such as the Middle East.
We admire Obama and his many foreign policy successes. The president is right that the United States needs to be cautious about intervening in the Middle East. But he has been far too reactive and unwilling to assert U.S. leadership in Syria over the past five years. We believe the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of a strong U.S. initiative to protect civilians. If we fail to act, the war in Syria will almost certainly grow worse.
President Obama will not be able to cure all the ills afflicting Syria this year. But he could begin to turn the tide of the war and prepare the way to an eventual peace in the years ahead.
Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University currently on a semester leave at Stanford University, was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute, was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.