Negotiating With The Enemy: The Failure of Syrian Peace Talks

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by Michelle Cioffoletti

“If you want to move people, you need to meet them where they are” –Helio Fred Garcia, The Power of Communication

In communication, we learn that in order to be an effective leader we must first meet people where they are. In conflict resolution, we learn that in order to reach success we must also meet people where they are.

We must appeal to not just the demographics of the group but to what really matters to them. We must dig beyond the surface.

As the United Nations halts Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the prospects of a resolution or even a ceasefire in the near future are dim. The five-year ongoing conflict has been characterized by tremendous war crimes, atrocious violence and a dire humanitarian situation.

So what’s next for Syria? Are the international community, the Assad regime and the opposition truly ready for peace? The quickly interrupted beginnings to peace talks have fallen to intensified air raids by the Russians, coming to the aid of the Assad regime. As Aleppo continues to burn, what is the true prospect of peace for Syria?

Meet the Opposition

The web of actors involved in the prospective peace talks is expansive and complex. Jordan has reportedly assisted in the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria to draw the thin line between opposition groups and terrorist organizations.

While the self proclaimed Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jahbat Al-Nusra are the two strongest opposition groups in Syria, they are internationally recognized as terrorist organizations and are not invited to any UN backed peace talks. The two groups will not be included in talks yet both carry a significant weight in the Syrian conflict.

The most prominent countries involved in the opposition are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. Qatar and other Gulf countries have also been influential in talks alongside their longtime Saudi allies. Turkey and the United States also play integral roles.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long fought for regional dominance. Both Iran and Russia have come to the aid of Assad for their own regional advantages. Russia and Turkey have also had a strained relationship following the downing of Russia’s SU-21 Bomber in November 2015 by Turkish forces. The involvements of Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurdish Forces (PYD), along with other rebel faction group have also contributed to substantial tensions in the potential of talks.

The Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC), a Saudi-led opposition coalition has adamantly insisted that they will be involved in talk only if the Syrian government lifts sieges on rebel led towns or commit to a ceasefire. To the surprise of few, the Assad regime has not complied.

Assad Does Not Negotiate 

While politics have taken the front seat, the reality of the situation in Syria is appalling. With more than half of the prewar population internally displaced or fleeing abroad, the Syrian people have endured extraordinary suffering at the hands of opposition groups, with Assad being no exception to the violence.

In fact, Assad has contributed significantly to the casualties and displacement of Syrians. If talks continue, Syrian delegation will be lead by Syrian Ambassador to the U.N., Bashar al Jaafari. While Assad’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mallem has confirmed the government’s desire to engage in peace talks, many question the true prospect of peace with Assad being involved in the talks.  Does Assad even want peace?

If the prospect of peace involves Assad’s immediate and guaranteed departure, it is clear Assad wants no part. It is no coincidence that the beginning of peace talks was overshadowed by intense attacks on the opposition. Assad has repeatedly shown his lack of interest not only in meeting people where they are, but in any form of negotiation or resolution.

Bashar Al-Assad has not quivered in his no-negotiation policy, initially firing at peaceful protestors, igniting the conflict that continues to rage on today. Al-Assad has been able to withstand the surrounding revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

The involvement of Russia has allowed Assad to make significant territorial gains against the opposition. Yet at what cost? He has maintained control via brutality, zero tolerance to opposition, and the ruthless war crimes against his own people.

The Assad regime has committed grave violations of humanitarian law; the use of chemical weapons against its own people, the complete leveling of entire villages, the use of bomb barrels (with the backing of Russian air-strikes) and starvation as a political tool.

The chaos that today is Syria has manifested as a result of political instability and social unrest. The unrest cannot be viewed separately from Al-Assad’s authoritative regime. Terrorist organizations, most notably the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra, have aims far larger than the demise of the Al-Assad regime, yet the organizations have been successful in capitalizing on the unrest in Syria.

The peace talks were intended to follow a two-track negotiation. With governance and humanitarian subjects being the centers of the conversation. To believe that Assad will partake in the negotiation of his own departure not only threatens the chance of any productivity but also is sadly naive.

The parties will meet separately prior to having any form of conflict resolution together. Unfortunately, the prospect of peace is what U.N. mediator Staffan De Mistura has described as an already ‘uphill battle’, in which regional powers, opposition groups, international terrorist organizations and the Assad regime have all become heavily intertwined.

The fight for Syria cannot be resolved if the parties involved are not willing to go beyond their immediate concerns. Syrian President Al-Assad’s cabinet has shown little desire for peace, raising the question as to whether Syria can truly exist without his departure.

A simplistic view of the situation does not do justice to the complicated road ahead. The process to end the violence in Syria is multifaceted and carries social, ethnic, religious and political weight.

The parties that can find common ground for the future of Syria as a country will likely be more successful than those that are fighting to continue to their own personal reign over Syria. The world will be waiting for the resumption of talks, as the feeble prospect for peace in Syria continues to wither.

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