Since the defeat of ISIS at the hands of the Syrian army in Deir-Ezzor, hopes have been high for the resumption of a genuine political process between the Syrian government and the western-sponsored opposition. A fresh round of Geneva negotiations is already on the agenda. Russia’s efforts, alongside Turkey and Iran, seemed to be heading in the right direction. Bashar al Assad’s meeting in Sochi with his Russian counterpart and ally, Vladimir Putin, was described to us as ‘constructive’ and ‘fruitful’, with the Syrian leader expressing his readiness for engaging in positive dialogue with all parties. Expectations, even from the usually pessimistic press, were surprisingly high.
But this optimism has little chance of living up to expectations. Any prospect for peace is always welcome, but such hopes are invariably dashed by two major obstacles: either unreasonable obstinacy, or persistent delusion.
Repeated demands by the UN-recognized opposition, that President Assad leave power at the start of any transition, or that Iran withdraw all military forces and militias (including Hezbollah) from Syria immediately, are simply unrealistic, and delusional. The armed rebel groups are not in the same position as they were prior to Russia’s intervention. They have less leverage over the Syrian government, which has regained momentum and confidence over the past two years. Russia succeeded in bolstering President Assad’s forces, giving them the upper hand on the battlefield, and allowing them to reclaim much of the territory previously conceded to the rebels, including Aleppo City, a moment in history that was a major turning point in the conflict.
Syrian President Assad’s pledge to ‘retake every inch of Syria’ would also seem unrealistic in the short term; as such an objective could never be achieved without at least another two or three years of all-out war. Whether he truly intends to retake the entire country and genuinely believes the task is possible, or whether he said this for media purposes, is irrelevant. If Syria is to have any chance of peace and national reconciliation, both the government and the moderate opposition groups must accept the realities of the current situation, whilst agreeing to negotiate in good faith and without setting preconditions.
To most objective and logical observers, it appears that a military solution is no longer viable, if it ever was: the rebels have lost some of their most important strongholds, including Aleppo, the entirety of Western Ghouta, a considerable part of Eastern Ghouta, and continue to lose ground in northern Hama. They have also lost all their gains in Latakia province, 95% of which is currently government controlled. And whilst the government’s army is advancing on multiple fronts and launching successful offensives, they are also exhausted, overstretched, suffering from a shortage in manpower, and overly reliant on Russian air support.
Despite efforts to unite the fragmented political opposition and bring the government to the table, many important factions remain excluded from the peace process. The YPG, the single most significant force in the fight against ISIS, has not been invited to Geneva. This preeminent faction of the Syrian Kurds deserves to be represented in any negotiations concerning the fate of their country. For that matter Rifaat al-Assad’s United Nationals Democratic Alliance (UNDA), is also excluded from the peace talks. As are those Syrian Baathists in the opposition, who defected several decades ago. As are most secular factions.
Figures such as Riyad Hijab, former Syrian Prime Minister who defected during the early phase of the conflict, are of no political relevance to current events. Nor is Mohamed Alloush remotely relevant. Mr Alloush, a complete unknown to the Syrian public, made his name in 2016 for attracting controversy at the Geneva peace talks merely because of his family connection to Zahran Alloush, founding-commander of Jaysh al-Islam rebel faction. As for the newly-appointed head of the ‘High Negotiations Committee’ Nasr al-Hariri, Syrians hadn’t heard of Mr. Hariri until his comments regarding the immediate departure of the Syrian president from power only two days ago. Very few of them would even remember his name if you asked them today. Such individuals are often placed in the limelight and given media attention, without having any real public support. They represent themselves and the delegations they speak for, but they represent nobody in Syria.
The opposition delegation attending the Geneva conference is not as inclusive and representative as Mr. de Mistura believes it to be. Perhaps it is time he reconsidered his approach.