A Syrian peace conference has been repeatedly delayed as U.S., Russian and U.N. diplomats struggle to get all parties involved to agree to take part. Rebel brigades have voiced their opposition to the so-called “Geneva Two” process if the conference does not stipulate President Bashar al-Assad’s removal.
Given the deadlock, some are calling for a new approach. Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the international community should consider employing an entirely new tactic to reaching peace in Syria. He recently laid out his views in an interview “The Long Reach for Syrian Peace.” VOA’s Susan Yackee asked him about what he envisions.
Yackee: You argue that Washington should pressure moderate Sunni rebels to work with the Assad government to defeat the hardline Islamists. Now, this is a little different from what other people have said.
Gelb: The dominant view you have in Congress and among a lot of foreign policy experts is, “Let’s provide more and better aid – mainly better military aid to the good rebels, the Sunni moderate rebels.” I’m not against that but I think simply doing that will result in what’s happened for the last two years. Namely, we provide more aid to our side, and the Russians and Iranians are going to provide more aid to the Assad government, and the radical Arab regimes will provide more aid to the Jihadi religious extremist rebels. So, if we all end up providing more military aid, there are going to be more refugees and more people killed.”
Yackee: What if the jihadists came to power? Do you think they’d impose an Islamic state with sharia law, which a lot of people fear?
Gelb: It’s not just what I think; it’s what they say. And it’s what they say wherever they have come to power, which is why all the parties inside Syria – the moderate rebels, the Assad government – fear those jidadis most. And if you go to our friends and allies who neighbor on Syria – Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel – they are most worried about the jihadis too.
“[Y]ou want to begin to work out some cooperation between the Alawite government and the moderate rebels in their fight against the Islamic extremists….” – Leslie Gelb, Council on Foreign Relations
Yackee: If they are able to eliminate the jihadist danger, what’s next?
Gelb: You’re not going to eliminate them overnight. That’s going to take some time because they are the fiercest fighters in the field right now; very dangerous people. But you want to begin to work out some cooperation between the Alawite government and the moderate rebels in their fight against the Islamic extremists, and at the same time you strengthen the moderate rebels militarily, and you begin to outline, both for the Alawite and the moderate Sunnis what their future might be, and how they might stop fighting and killing each other. And I think a basis for doing that is a power-sharing agreement, mainly along federal lines.
Yackee: U.S. Secretery of State John Kerry and others have been trying to organize a Syria conference to try to sort out a peace here. Do you think that will happen?
Gelb: If it does happen, it’s not going to get anywhere but right now it’s not likely even though, for the first time, you have some of the moderate Sunni rebels are saying, they’ll do it. They’ve been under a lot of pressure from us to join the Geneva conference and now they said they will with some conditions, and I don’t think those conditions really can be met. And, in any event, if they went, I don’t think there is anything to be accomplished because no one has begun to lay the basis for any kind of deal between the Alawites who have been running the place and the great Sunni majority that wants to run it in the future. You have to begin to paint a picture on how they could compromise and live together. Unless you do and unless they begin to see that it’s viable, no Geneva conference or no other conference will get anywhere.
Yackee: So you believe that it’s time for the international community to change their direction if they want to see peace come to Syria?
Gelb: Yes, I think they are beginning to do it because they’ve finally figured out after two years of killing and refugee-making that the only way to stop this fighting is to work something out between the moderate rebels and the Alawites. For example, we’ve stopped that Syria’s president, Assad, must go. That used to be the hallmark of our policy. We don’t say it anymore. We just say he’s lost legitimacy. And we want him and his government to come and participate in negotiations. So that’s changed. Also changed has the notion that we can simply help the rebels because we finally realized that we don’t exactly know who they are and what they can do. They’ve never gotten fully organized. And there’s a big gap, it seems, between the rebels we deal with and that council in Turkey and the good rebels fighting in the field.
Leslie Gelb is the Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus, a former correspondent for the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He also is author of the book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue Foreign Policy.
Listen to our interview with Leslie Gelb:
Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.