by Benedetta Berti
Resolution 2254 reflects a positive development, but as long as an Iranian-Saudi-Turkish compromise does not materialize – it may prove too little to radically alter Syria’s tragic course
On December 18, 2015, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing a roadmap for a political solution to the Syrian civil war. A number of foreign policy commentators initially welcomed the development as an important signal that the international community was finally united and committed to putting an end to the bloody and protracted internal conflict that has both engulfed Syria and destabilized the Levant. However, many central hurdles remain and effectively constrain moving forward with the political process called for by the resolution. These hurdles will probably prevent the start of peace negotiations soon, in spite of the urgency of the talks. Resolution 2254 reflects a positive development, but as long as an Iranian-Saudi-Turkish compromise does not materialize – a development that now looks even less likely following the recent escalation of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran leading to the severing of diplomatic relations – it may prove too little to radically alter Syria’s tragic course.
On December 18, 2015 the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing a roadmap for a political solution to the Syrian civil war. A number of foreign policy commentators initially welcomed the development as an important signal that the international community was finally united and committed to putting an end to the bloody and protracted internal conflict that has both engulfed Syria and destabilized the Levant. Is such optimism justified? To answer this question, it is important to examine both what UNSC 2254 says, and even more importantly, the issues it does not explicitly address.
French President Hollande (r) and Foreign Affairs Minister Fabius (2nd from r), in talks with General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Parnuary 11, 2016. Photo: Francois Mori / AFP
Yet even if the content of UNSC 2254 is not groundbreaking per se, its adoption was a positive development, reflecting the international community’s increased political will and sense of urgency when it comes to Syria. This is especially true as the resolution echoed the Vienna talks of October and November 2015, where the International Syria Support Group – including key external players such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States – also agreed on the notion of pushing for new negotiations, a ceasefire, and a political transition.
Still, despite this seeming emerging international momentum, the road to peace in Syria remains uphill. The omissions in Resolution 2254 can offer a clue of where and how future negotiations may become deadlocked.
First, and not surprisingly, the roadmap for Syria is silent on Bashar al-Assad’s role in both the interim government and in the post-agreement Syrian political arena. Leaving the issue to be negotiated by the warring parties at the negotiating table, however, does not solve the profoundly divisive nature of the subject. The Syrian regime’s statements and actions indicate that keeping Bashar al-Assad in power remains the utmost priority, not just because of the President’s symbolic and political role, but also because he remains the key to keeping the regime apparatus from collapsing. Yet to the vast majority of anti-Assad political and military factions that have any degree of legitimacy and control on the ground, any political and long term ceasefire deal that includes Assad remains a non-starter. This is true not just because they would be ideologically opposed to it, but also because they would be unable to enforce it on the ground and, in the process, they would risk losing legitimacy within their own constituency.
Bridging this gap necessitates tremendous compromise. For instance, it could require the opposition forces to drop Assad’s departure as a precondition and agree to his gradual exit from the political scene as an outcome of the negotiated political transition. But nothing indicates that the regime would be interested in pursuing this option or that the opposition forces would (rightly) have any trust in the regime’s goodwill to follow through. Similarly, in the international arena, even though Russia’s and America’s positions on Assad may be less antagonistic today than they were one year ago; it is far from clear whether the same is true for the Turkish, Saudi, and Iranian views on Assad, which remain largely incompatible. As a result, the coordinated international pressure that can be put on the parties on this subject is highly questionable.
Second, the issue of who speaks on behalf of the Syrian opposition remains unresolved and equally contentious. Constructive negotiations require the main political and military factions of the opposition to be both represented and able to speak in a coordinated and cohesive manner. Yet the Syrian regime has been consistent in proclaiming its willingness to negotiate with the “political opposition” and not with “terrorists.” While this principle may not appear especially problematic, Bashar al-Assad’s recent declarations that "for us, in Syria, everyone who holds a machine-gun is a terrorist" suggests why it is incompatible with serious peace negotiations.
Indeed, given the highly fractionalized and deeply militarized nature of the Syrian civil war, no credible deal can be discussed, let alone implemented, without involving the country’s main fighting groups. The international community has by and large acknowledged this reality, which is why Resolution 2254 praises the Saudi-organized opposition talks held in Riyadh in December 2015 to establish a broad and representative delegation to articulate the different interests of the Syrian opposition in future peace talks. Yet, when it comes to the regime’s attitude, the late December 2015 killing of Zahran Alloush, leader of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) armed faction, reinforces the question as to whether Bashar al-Assad has any intention of changing his stance. In addition, this high profile killing will have a negative impact on the upcoming negotiations, both by further lowering the trust between the parties and by eliminating a powerful and unifying figure that the opposition needs to keep its ranks together.
In this complex context, the international community has the difficult task of agreeing on the heavily political issue of which warring factions should be classified as terrorist organizations. Finding common ground when labeling the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist groups has proven easy; but concurring on the designation of the roughly 160 factions Jordan included in its list of terrorist organizations operating in Syria is a much harder task (which brought Qatar to oppose the idea of a list all together).
It is also important for the international community to ensure that those sitting at the table represent the broadest possible set of interests within the Syrian opposition forces. Otherwise, future rounds of negotiations risk becoming nothing more than a fig leaf for the regime to project power, while resulting in yet another failed attempt to promote peace in Syria. What is more, failed peace negotiations can trigger a rise in violence, thus backfiring. Similarly, defining which factions constitute “legitimate opposition” is a key to achieving a meaningful ceasefire: with areas under al-Nusra and ISIS not part of the planned ceasefire, ensuring most other armed factions are included will be critical in order to mitigate the civilian population’s suffering in Syria.
All these issues are central hurdles in moving forward with the political process called for by UNSC Resolution 2254. They will probably prevent the start of peace negotiations in January 2016, in spite of the urgency of the talks, given the tragic refugee crisis, the understanding that no long term success against the Islamic State can occur as long as the war continues, and the fear of further regional destabilization that could be the source of increased international coordinating on Syria. Resolution 2254 reflects a positive development, but as long as an Iranian-Saudi-Turkish compromise does not materialize – a development that now looks even less likely following the recent escalation of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran leading to the severing of diplomatic relations – it may prove too little to radically alter Syria’s tragic course.
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