When negotiations between Syrian government and opposition representatives designed to establish a rudimentary framework for ending the country’s ongoing civil war began on Feb. 2, hopes were dim that the disparate array of competing parties could stumble upon an agreement in a short period of time. The Geneva conference, experts and attendees alike agreed, was destined to fail.
Such sentiments were confirmed when only two days later, United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura suspended the talks for three weeks, citing delegates’ irreconcilable differences on humanitarian assistance within Syria. Mr. de Mistura deemed the setback a “pause” rather than an abject failure, though the sides’ inability to agree on even basic preconditions reflected the adversities obstructing a fruitful resumption based on the status quo.
If future UN-brokered sessions are to have any possibility of success, fundamental stipulations must be met regarding the actors present at the negotiating table and the behavior of key regional actors. First, Mr. de Mistura must ensure that maximal inclusivity will not be sacrificed for the appeasement of certain participating parties. A necessary step toward achieving this objective is ensuring that the Saudi-supported High Negotiations Committee, a coalition of thirty-four moderate and radical organizations, continues to serve as the primary representative of Syrian popular movements.
Most controversially, Islamist militant groups must additionally provide input if there are to be legitimate aspirations of altering the present reality on the ground. Particularly, radical Islamic armies Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, despite maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and perpetrating atrocities rivaling those of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, will be integral to formulating a political solution considering their military prowess and popular support. Jaysh al-Islam has already played a prominent role – its leader Mohammed Alloush planned to serve as chief negotiator for the HRC – but Ahrar al-Sham elected to avoid what it considered inherently biased deliberations with the Assad regime.
Apart from the Syrian government, Russia has led opposition to Islamist participation, declaring on Jan. 29 that inviting Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham would be “unacceptable.” However, on Feb. 4, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed a newfound openness to the two groups attending the conference. If Moscow keeps its word, every effort must be made to bring Ahrar al-Sham to the table, as the exclusion of a powerful militant army could threaten the legitimacy and efficacy of any future negotiated settlement.
The final party whose presence must be mandated at the next round of talks is the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known in Kurdish as Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrata, a nationalist front with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, referred to as the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê in Kurdish, which Turkey, the United States and others have designated a terrorist organization. Turkey has categorically rejected PYD participation, while Russia, amid an ongoing diplomatic spat with Ankara, has advocated allowing the Kurds a seat at the table.
The Turkish insistence on excluding the Kurds is understandable considering the PKK’s history of violence and present territorial ambitions. Nevertheless, the PYD’s value as a partner in Syria necessitates their inclusion. Not only has PYD leader Saleh Muslim offered Kurdish territory as a training ground for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, but he has also advocated establishing a democratic, decentralized Syria rather than an independent Kurdistan.
Convincing Ankara to accept PYD involvement will be a daunting diplomatic undertaking. To accomplish this goal, the U.S. must secure PYD guarantees to refrain from political and military collaboration with the PKK against Turkey, undertake a more pronounced effort against Syrian government forces, firmly oppose a future independent Kurdish enclave and distance itself from Moscow, with which its leadership has grown closer as of late. While Turkey will remain reluctant to invite PYD leadership to future negotiations, the potential benefits of adding a stable, moderate, and militarily viable regional partner could, if framed correctly, outweigh temporary Turkish frustration.
The final and perhaps most elusive condition for the continuation of dialogue entails a change in Russian conduct. As the conference began, HNC representatives demanded that Moscow halt its acceleration of “indiscriminate bombings,” including alleged attacks on hospitals and other civilian areas in Aleppo. The Russian objective, it appears, is either to improve the Syrian army’s strategic posturing before any ceasefire takes hold or, as some experts conjecture, decisively shift the balance of the war in the government’s favor, thus “bombing the talks” into irrelevance.
If Russia is merely attempting to bolster Syrian advances prior to implementation of a ceasefire, international pressure, including that from Iran, which has expressed readiness for a halt in fighting, could coerce Moscow to suspend the campaign. However, if the Russian airstrikes are intended to scuttle hopes for a diplomatic solution entirely, little short of foreign military intervention would be able to stem the atrocities and mitigate the existential threat posted to Syrian rebel forces.
Russia’s ability to dictate the outcome of the Syrian conflict and violate human rights on a massive scale is incontrovertibly unacceptable, from a legal, moral and political viewpoint. Yet unless the United States is willing to risk military confrontation with its former Cold War adversary, it can only seek to unite the Syrian opposition so that if the Russian offensive does abate, a negotiated path to a peaceful solution in Syria will remain a feasible possibility.
Matt Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Friday.