Syria Talks Approaching

January 14, 2016

On December 18, 2015 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254 approving the road map which had emerged from International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) two Vienna meetings. A week later, Staffan de Mistura, UN’S Special Envoy for Syria, set the target date of January 25 to start talks in Geneva. And, at the very end of the year, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went to Ramadi to celebrate its liberation from ISIL.

Two weeks later, the regional mood is still not one of optimism.

Resolution 2254 emphasized the need for all parties in Syria to take confidence building measures to contribute to the viability of a political process and a lasting ceasefire, and called on all states to use their influence with the government of Syria and the Syrian opposition to advance the peace process. It also called on the parties to immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria. It demanded that all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects, and any indiscriminate use of weapons. These measures were designed to prepare the ground for a “Syrian-led” political process. Yet, not much has changed on the ground. The first trucks carrying food and medical aid may have reached the besieged Syrian town of Madaya. However, such tragedies also obliterate hopes for rebuilding a united country.

Only two days into the new year, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people for terrorism, including Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Consulate in Mashhad. In response, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Since then, the question has been the impact of the rupture on efforts to end the Syria conflict.

Iraq’s security forces have recaptured Ramadi with substantial air support by the US-led coalition. Ramadi is 110 kilometers west of Baghdad. But Falluja, which is only 70 kilometers to the capital is still under ISIL control. Now the question is whether a long-waited Iraqi “spring offensive” would be able to capture Falluja and Mosul. Should this prove to be the case, Mosul would have remained under ISIL rule for two years. And even then, it will not be “mission accomplished” as shown by ISIL’s terrorist attacks on a shopping mall in Baghdad on Monday.

Tunisia remains a glimmer of hope for the Arab Spring yet the highest number of foreign fighters in ISIL’s ranks are from Tunisia. Reportedly, there are groups pledging their allegiance to the terrorist organization in the Philippines. The list of terrorist attacks undertaken by ISIL beyond Syria and Iraq is getting dangerously longer.

While international attention remains focused on Syria, the Saudi-led coalition of wealthy Gulf states is continuing to pound Yemen from the air. The nine-month war has taken 6,000 lives and left millions of people facing shortages of food and vital supplies in this poor country. There are reports of foreign mercenaries fighting on the ground for the coalition.

Sectarian turmoil has already left Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon with an unprecedented refugee problem. And now, hundreds of thousands have crossed into Europe, confronting EU countries with a major challenge with multiple dimensions, prominently among them the question of culture. Even those EU member states which initially took a generous position towards refugees are now saying that they have their limits.

To complete this brief overview of the region one should also mention that on December 24, the Arab League condemned the Turkish military deployment in Bashiqa in northern Iraq as an “assault” on the country’s sovereignty and demanded its withdrawal. Turkey says her troops are there upon an earlierIraqi request to help train Iraq’s security forces.

Diplomacy is supposed to build bridges, contain and resolve conflicts. The crew of two small US Navy boats were picked up by Iranian authorities on Tuesday after they had “trespassed” in Iran’s territorial waters. On Wednesday they were allowed to leave. In the press statement he issued upon their departure, Secretary Kerry, after having expressed his “gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation ‎in swiftly resolving this matter”, referred to diplomacy: “…That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.” Surely, this was not just about the incident but also the Iran nuclear deal.

Middle East mentality is a somewhat different. It doesn’t value diplomacy as much as Mr. Kerry does. Engaging in bravado, rhetoric and burning bridges are widely popular courses of action no matter what the outcome. Immediately after the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Bahrain also cut her diplomatic relations with Iran. Kuwait and Qatar recalled their ambassadors in a display of solidarity with Riyadh. The U.A.E downgraded its ties and Oman condemned the Embassy attacks. Turkey does not have ambassadors in Egypt, Israel and no diplomatic relations with Syria. Her cooperation with Russia has suffered a very serious setback with the downing of the Russian Su-24 warplane. This leaves Oman as the only stable regional country above the fray with an opportunity to play a constructive regional role against all odds.

Unfortunately for them, Middle East countries are decades away from finding indigenous solutions to their problems. They can’t engage in dialogue. Nobody even remembers the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Charter of which says that all Member States shall settle their disputes through peaceful means and refrain from use or threat of use of force in their relations. And, that is not all. Regional countries constantly, and more often than not rightly, complain about external interventions. Yet, their inability to work together leads them to ally themselves with external powers against internal threats and regional rivals. Some, through mistaken policies, even become a liability for those powers.

The key to preventing further mismanagement of the Syrian conflict lies in cooperation between Russia and the US. They have to reach an understanding, within the parameters of Resolution 2254, on how to take the country to free and fair elections and prevail upon their regional partners. “Free” also means “free from external meddling”. Only such a joint effort would allow them a better legacy in the eyes of the peoples of the region. Yet, their relationship increasingly gives the impression of being more about competition, power projection, containment and defining that very relationship than what happens to the people of Syria. Should they fail to team up, the much awaited “Syrian-led” process would be more likely to perpetuate Syria’s divisions than to heal them. Such failure would continue to offer ISIL and its likes fertile ground for expanding their outreach as shown by Tuesday’s deadly terrorist attack in İstanbul.

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