US Secretary of State John Kerry is seen at a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and FM Sergei Lavrov, Moscow, May 7, 2013. (Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow has yielded a proposal for a Syria “peace conference,” to be held as early as the end of this month.  This is significant in at least two ways:

  • the Russians and Americans both still prefer a negotiated transition (often misleadingly referred to in the press as a “peaceful” one);
  • any dramatic increase in U.S. assistance to the Syrian opposition will likely have to wait until the conference is held, or proves to be a mirage.

What are the prospects for success of this initiative?  Not good unless Moscow and Washington are prepared not only to convene the event but also strongarm their respective friends (the regime and the opposition) into attending and settling.  I am reminded of the interminable series of conferences on Yugoslavia that the European Community, as it was then known, convened in the early 1990s.  The warring parties all showed up, if I remember correctly.  But little was accomplished on the main issues until the Americans twisted President Izetbegovic’s arm at Dayton, compelling him to accept a peace agreement he thought unjust.

The main issue in the Syria conflict is power:  who will control the government in Damascus?  Russia and the United States a year ago agreed to a transition in which power would be delegated to a government with representation of both the Assad regime and the opposition.  The American view is that this means Bashar al-Assad would give up all power (and presumably opt to leave the country).  The Russian view is that Assad can stay and maybe even run in an election.

insight generic INSIGHT: Syria   Conference TimeSharp as this contrast is, the Americans and Russians have some common interests.  Neither wants to see a victory for Sunni extremists.  Both would want any opposition representation in a transition government to be predominantly moderate.  Moscow and Washington will be particularly keen to emarginate Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida in Iraq affiliate that has established itself as a leader in the opposition fight against the Assad regime.  Neither the Americans nor the Russians will want to see a post-Assad massacre of Syria’s Alawites and Christians, some of whom have been mainstays of the Assad regime.  The Russians will want to maintain their port access in Syria.  The Americans should be able to live with that.  The Americans will want a more or less democratic outcome.  The Russians will be able to live with that, so long as it does not open the door to haven for extremists who mount insurgencies in Russia’s Muslim-populated territories.

“[W]hat you’ve got to do is get the regime to perceive it cannot gain from continuing the fighting…” – Daniel Serwer

What would cause the regime and the opposition to agree to a negotiated settlement?

The opposition is having serious difficulties on the battlefield.  Its fragmented forces are able to “clear” some countryside areas and parts of towns, but they are unable to “hold” and “build.”  With 6.8 million Syrians now in need of humanitarian relief, according to the U.N., the opposition is simply overwhelmed. Air and artillery attacks on “liberated” areas make it impossible to meet the needs of non-fighting citizens.  The regime intentionally targets hospitals, schools and bakeries, in an effort to demoralize people and get them to expel the rebel fighters.  All the (necessarily non-extremist) opposition Syrians I’ve met from inside Syria support the idea of negotiating with the regime.  In the parlance of conflict management, the secularists and moderate Islamists perceive the situation as “a mutually hurting stalemate” in which neither side can gain from continued fighting.  The situation is therefore “ripe.”

reu syria rebels 700 09may13jpg INSIGHT: Syria   Conference Time

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare their weapons before heading towards the frontline in the al-Ziyabiya area near Damascus May 5, 2013. (Reuters)

The regime is less inclined to see things that way.  It still has ample Russian and Iranian support.  It is able to deliver humanitarian assistance to much of the territory it still controls.  Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, noted yesterday at a Middle East Institute event that some opposition family members move to government-controlled areas when their (mostly) men go off to fight against the regime, because they are safer and food is more available.  The Syrian army is exhausted, but the elite forces that do most of the fighting are not flagging, as they are mostly Alawite and view this struggle as an existential one.

So we do not have here a “mutually hurting stalemate,” even if some on one side perceives the situation as ripe (and likely many citizens sitting on the fence would too).  Nor do we have a sense on both sides of a “way out.”  Much of the opposition may be willing to talk, but they don’t want a negotiated solution that leaves Assad in place.  The regime stalwarts see no negotiated solution without him.

If you want a negotiated solution, which Moscow and Washington both prefer because it will give them more control over who gains power, what you’ve got to do is get the regime to perceive it cannot gain from continuing the fighting while not giving the opposition so much encouragement that it decides to continue.  There are many ways Washington and Moscow can do this.  But we’ll save the options for another day.  We’ll also need to discuss who speaks for the opposition and for the regime, which is a non-trivial issue that will need to be resolved before any conference has a chance of success.

This post was originally published by peacefare.net.

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 INSIGHT: Syria   Conference Time

Daniel Serwer

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at peacefare.net and tweets at @DanielSerwer