Why initiatives to bring peace in Syria have got it wrong

While the international priority is to defeat ISIS, the Syrian civil war deepens. If we truly want peace, it is time to address some of the tougher questions at the same time.

By: /
January 7, 2016
Syrian Kurdish refugees wait on the back of a truck near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province September 22, 2014. REUTERS/Murad Seze

After several months of working on helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada it is obvious that there will always be more, millions more, refugees that need help in the region. Can the UNHRC and humanitarian organization help all these refugees? The obvious answer is a resounding no.

A big organization like the UNHCR can barely help 16 percent of refugees and internally displaced Syrians for lack of funds and human resources. Even governments like Canada's, who has given generously to help refugees, can’t lift more than one percent of refugees out of their misery.

Let’s be realistic, Syria is not the only place where people need help. There are natural disasters and other civil wars tearing apart and displacing close to 60 million refugees worldwide.  Hence, the only sustainable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis is to deal with the root cause of the problem — that is, the Syrian civil war. But how can this conflict end?

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011 until the present, no fewer than 13 different initiatives have been initiated to try and resolve the Syrian conflict — half of these took place in 2012 alone, now down to two initiatives a year; that is, in addition to shuttle and back-door diplomacy meetings.

So, why couldn’t all these efforts solve the problem? Because these were not organic.

Most of these initiatives were launched by international or regional powers (often missing key players), working on advancing their self-interested myopic agendas or trying to score points against adversaries. Also, these efforts were made without the main parties being present — the Syrians which represent government and opposition groups. This is not the most conducive atmosphere to achieve a lasting peace in Syria. 

Despite these failed attempts and missteps, some notable progress has been achieved over the past four years. Two failed Arab League attempts in 2011 and 2012, followed by a Russian call for talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in 2012 and 2013, which was also unsuccessful, ultimately turned into a United Nations/Arab League plan in 2013, and culminated with something resembling a real initiative — the Geneva II Conference in 2014.

This conference was the beginning of a positive momentum because it included the Syrian government and opposition groups, in coordination with Russia and the U.S. Building on that momentum, further talks started in Vienna in 2015, involving more international players such as the U.S., Russia, the EU and China, as well as important regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and, for the first time, Iran. The talks held recently in November 2015 produced an agreement on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices with a target date. Involved officials then met in New York to pass a UN resolution endorsing the principles of the Syria Peace Process, which provided a transitional plan that set a timetable for formal talks and a unity government within six months. The first of these formal talks is expected some time this month.

So, if major players are now involved in these negotiations, and if they have reached some sort of an initial agreement on the Syrian peace process, what is the issue?

For one, Russia is now holding the key to Syrian peace and airspace. The fact that a Hezbollah (Iran backed) leader, Samir Kuntar, of the Palestine Liberation Front, has reportedly been killed this month in Damascus in an alleged Israeli airstrike when Russian radars could have easily intercepted such an attack, is an indication that Russia, not Iran or the Assad government, is now in control of Syria. Will Russia cede its control of Syria, and, if yes, under what conditions is it willing to do so? Perhaps with more access to the Middle East? Closer ties with Europe? Or, with a carte-blanche on the Ukraine?

The second obstacle facing these negotiations is that the main players remain divided along sectarian tensions (like Saudi Arabia and Iran), and on who should represent the Syrian opposition (determining who is a legitimate rebel and who is a terrorist group is a murky business). Also no one dared to mention the elephant in the room (which is the main hurdle to peace since 2011), that is, the future role of Syrian President Bashar Assad – should he stay or should he go? And if he goes, what is the alternative? Are we going to see a secular Syria rising from the ashes of a bloody civil war representing all sects, or a Shiite-led government with Iranian backing, or a Sunni-government representing a Sunni majority population for the first time in 45 years?

I guess the international focus for now is on ISIS. Having proven to be a threat to major powers, the implicit wisdom is to first get rid of ISIS and then turn to President Assad, who is seen as the lesser of two evils.

In the meantime however, as the international community focuses on ISIS and allows the situation to fester between groups backing Assad and those in opposition, everyday grievances between Syrians — on the ground and abroad — are deepening, while the numbers of refugees and casualties increase, all of which makes reconciliation even harder to achieve. This reality, and the importance of peacebuilding, should not be forgotten while we tackle ISIS.

The more protracted this conflict gets, the more logical it is to conclude that a united Syria is no longer a possibility. The fate of Syria is starting to resemble scenarios similar to Iraq and the former Republic of Yugoslavia — divided communities along ethnic and sectarian loyalties — where Canada and the UN can play their traditional peacekeeping roles.