The Syrian conflict has reached a crucial stage. With the imminent destruction of ISIS in the east, and the creation of four major de-escalation zones to the west, the stage is set for renewed attempts to bring the fratricidal war to an end.
To the surprise of most observers, the de-escalation zones established by the United States and Russia have been respected by the warring parties. Statistics show a highly significant reduction in the number of casualties and the general level of violence. There have been a number of reconciliations between the Syrian government and factions of the moderate opposition over the past two years, particularly in the rural suburbs of Damascus, as was the case in Qudsayah and al-Hameh. Amnesty has been granted to insurgents and army-defectors, something we never saw during the initial phase of the crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his objectives in Syria in an interview with Charlie Rose in late September 2015, emphasising three major points:
- The importance of the fight against terrorism to Russia’s national security
- The importance of preserving Syrian statehood
- “…creating the necessary conditions for the political process” to resume
Now that the first two objectives have been satisfied, there is no reason to delay the third. Unlike previous attempts, the new round of peace talks must include the entire spectrum of the opposition and the Syrian government. All factions of the Syrian people must be represented. Picking and choosing some opposition groups to speak on behalf of the others is unacceptable. Further, those who take the lead at the negotiating table should represent Syrians on the ground. Certain figures in the opposition have no real political relevance and are unknown to Syrians, yet they are constantly put in the forefront when they head the mainstream opposition delegations.
There is a serious concern amongst religious minorities that an extremist Islamist system is the only alternative to the current government, and this fear has often been ignored. Western governments that have enthusiastically supported certain opposition groups must recognize and understand this fear. Controversial entities such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam are often legitimized as part of the acceptable opposition despite their explicit hatred of “the infidel” and allegations of their involvement in mass killings of civilians alongside the Nusra Front. Promoting a secular and democratic Syria is hardly compatible with the vision of Islamist hardliners. Secularism is the only guarantee for the safety of religious minorities in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.
The Geneva peace process is to be seen in tandem, and not in conflict, with Astana. One should complement the other. The Astana agreements have materialised, providing a solid basis for the Geneva talks to generate positive results and build on the successes of Astana.
Finally, both sides should act in good faith. The only priority must be the interests of the Syrian people. For the talks to succeed, both sides must be prepared for compromise and willing to make reasonable concessions. Imposing preconditions at this stage is counterproductive. It has become clear that there cannot be a viable military solution to the Syrian conflict, and no side can achieve a decisive military victory over the other.