NEW YORK – For the last five years, U.S. policy on the Syrian civil war has revolved around supporting the United Nations’ efforts to find a political accommodation between the main combatants in the war — and reminding anyone who will listen that only a political resolution will end the grinding conflict for good.
Unfortunately, the policy hasn’t kept pace with military reality. President Bashar Assad’s position on the ground is better than it has ever been; he has no incentive to do what the international community wants — to end the carnage and eventually transition out of the presidential palace.
That means a new strategy is required, one that recognizes that if a political solution was not attainable in the past it’s highly unlikely to be attainable in the future. Instead, the United States and its partners should do what they can to freeze the conflict in specific geographical areas, just as the U.S., Russia and Jordan successfully did in southwestern Syria several weeks ago.
The U.N. does already have someone in place to set a policy shift in motion. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura, the Italian-Swedish diplomat appointed by former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to preside over the Syria portfolio, has been indefatigable in his efforts to end the violence. Barely a week goes by without De Mistura flying to regional capitals, meeting with representatives from both the moderate Syrian opposition and the Assad regime, and working with diplomats across multiple continents to win support for negotiations.
And yet despite this Herculean effort, De Mistura has been unable to make any serious headway in a diplomatic process that much of the international community considers dead or dying. De Mistura is certainly not to blame; he is perseverance and determination in human form. But even the most experienced negotiator with an unlimited supply of energy and personal credibility will fail when the parties in the dispute view one another with mistrust and the conflict itself has descended into a regional proxy conflict.
Discussions about confidence-building measures, which have proven instrumental in other negotiations, continue to be difficult to sustain. Even De Mistura appears to accept this sad fact, telling journalists before the beginning of the seventh round of Syrian talks that while he continues to hope that the Syrian government and rebel delegation begin to get serious, “We have been … disappointed many times during these last four years and Syrians have been disappointed during the last six years.” There is no reason to believe that the next round of diplomacy in Geneva scheduled for next month will be any more successful than the last six.
So if talks about Syria’s politics have hit a dead end, it’s time to take a hard look at the reality of the situation. Most importantly, De Mistura needs to lower expectations about what is possible.
Throughout the last six years of conflict and attempted mediation, every single bid that has concentrated on the politics of Syria — how the country will be governed after the war ends; who will be represented in a transitional government; what should and should not be included in a new Syrian constitution; what happens with Assad — have collapsed.
Much of this has to do with the complicated nature of the conflict and the many stakeholders involved on the ground and in the air. But the biggest impediment is Assad’s refusal to negotiate his own downfall. The Syrian leader’s resistance to any political compromise, no matter how small or insignificant, has only solidified with the support that Iran and Russia have provided to the regime in Damascus.
Assad does not want to negotiate on the politics because he no longer needs to — his position on the ground is the best it has ever been. With the exception of Damascus’s eastern suburbs and the northern city of Raqqa, all of Syria’s major cities have been retaken by the regime or pro-regime militias. Assad’s political opponents are increasingly hemmed into enclaves in Syria’s Idlib and Deraa provinces — at great cost to the country’s infrastructure and to the detriment of the millions of civilians who live (or used to live) there. Assad may be a brutal tyrant, but he’s also a rational actor who understands that the direction of the war has been going his way ever since the Russian air force bailed him out with a bombing campaign in the fall of 2015.
Not all of the agreements reached over the previous years, however, have been failures. Accords focusing on separating the warring sides in specific areas, establishing truces to deliver humanitarian assistance and allowing injured civilians to leave these zones for medical treatment have been slightly more successful. While it is indisputable that the regime has broken many of the cease-fire accords it has signed, the de-escalation agreements arranged over the previous three months have resulted in at least a decline in hostilities that would not have ordinarily been possible. The U.N. secretary-general has acknowledged to the Security Council that “violence has decreased” in some of the four de-escalation zones that Turkey, Russia and Iran set up in Astana in May. The de-escalation accord in three of Syria’s southernmost provinces that was finalized earlier in July, which includes a general cease-fire between government and moderate opposition forces and an exclusion zone for Iranian and Hezbollah units near the borders of Israel and Jordan, also largely seems to be holding better than expected — for now, at least.
Although it is still too early to label both cease-fire deals a success — and while it is certain that breaches are inevitable — agreements that focus exclusively on security while leaving political questions to the U.N. have been more effective than meshing the security and the politics tracks together. It remains to be seen whether the decrease in hostilities will last over the long term, but it is difficult to dispute the argument that concentrating on stemming the bloodshed first and exploring options for political reconciliation second have had a more positive impact for the civilians on the ground.
Many Syria analysts will view short-term, sporadic cessations of the violence as the bare minimum that the U.S. and its allies can achieve. Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute makes the point that regional truces and no-go zones are akin to treating “a symptom of a crisis, while allowing its root cause (the Assad regime) to survive.” Indeed, these experts make a valuable argument: none of the cease-fires hashed out in the past do anything to address Assad’s political future — the core issue that has obstructed De Mistura’s campaign to prod the combatants toward a political framework.
But at this stage in the war, after six years of combat, half a million fatalities, a region teeming with Syrian refugees and 13.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, it is time for the international community to drop their hopes at the door. The world can continue to pray for a time when Assad magically makes the transformation from a manipulative and sociopathic war criminal to a conciliator. Or it can do things a little differently by leveraging its influence over Syria’s combatants to strike agreements that provide some semblance of peace for the Syrian people on the ground.
This change in approach will not win anybody the Nobel Peace Prize, but it may be the best Syrians can hope for right now.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat Inc. He is a columnist for the National Interest, Rare Politics, the American Conservative and The Huffington Post.