Syrian peace talks not dead yet

A fortnight ago there was, for once, some moderately hopeful news about Syria, with the United States and Russia agreeing on a plan for an international peace conference. But from there things quickly went back to the customary routine of atrocity and counter-atrocity. Last weekend, embattled president Bashar al-Assad poured cold water on the idea of peace talks, demanding that his opponents first “put down their arms” and saying “We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria.”

And Assad’s actions in intensifying the fighting seem to match his words. In yesterday’s Crikey Damien Kingsbury gave a pessimistic assessment:

With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.

Another twist indeed. This morning there’s again a small note of optimism as Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator for Syria, tells the world that plans for the peace conference are going ahead: “The Syrian people are building great hopes on the conference, as the opposition prepares itself to take part and likewise the Syrian regime prepares to take part in this conference. … The United Nations is working to organise the conference in the best way possible.”

What to think? The Syrian opposition are saying (not unreasonably) that they are not up for any negotiated outcome that leaves the Assad regime in power, but they seem open to talks that involve the regime. Moaz al-Khtaib, who recently resigned as president of the Syrian National Coalition, said that “all opposition forces have no objection to finding a political solution.”

Conversely, the Russians have been insistent that Assad’s removal not form any sort of precondition for talks, but they have not endorsed Assad’s position that the “terrorists” need to disarm first.

It still looks possible that the two sides might be brought to the same table, but whether that offers any prospect of an actual agreement will probably depend most of all on the Russian attitude. Its military aid to Assad seems to be increasing rather than diminishing; in the short term that has obviously strengthened his position, but it also means that a threat to withdraw support could be a very powerful incentive to bring him to some sort of deal if Russia decides that is in its best interests.

Kingsbury suggests that “One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.” I think that may be right, with the additional point that if Russia is the one doing the strengthening (rather than, say, less respectable allies such as Iran and Hezbollah), it gives it maximum leverage with both sides at the peace conference – if it ever happens.

The downside risk is that further militarisation of the conflict could have incalculable consequences. For one thing, Russia’s attitude is clearly a factor putting pressure on the US to help arm the Syrian opposition. And while increased bloodshed sometimes drives participants to make compromises for peace, sometimes it does the opposite, pushing them to revenge what they have already suffered.

And of course there’s the Israeli factor, with another flare-up yesterday on the Golan Heights.

The best one can say is that hope for Syria has not been completely extinguished. But the road to peace is going to be far from easy.

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