Why diplomacy is failing in Syria

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Manish Rai

There have been multiple diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict since it erupted in 2011, but all have ended in vain. Even recently, no agreement was reached or set out in a final document at the ministerial meeting on Syria held in the Swiss lakeside city of Lausanne. It proved to be a futile exercise. The meeting came to an end without even the release of a joint statement by its participants. With yet another failed peace talk on Syria, the question on everyone’s mind is why all efforts keep failing.
Everybody agrees that Syria needs a peaceful solution to the conflict, which should be reached through a dialogue, but until now no diplomatic effort in the case of Syria has proved to be successful. Even this failure of diplomacy raises a question mark on the credibility of the United Nations (UN) as in every failed peace talks the UN was involved either directly or indirectly. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Syria has exposed the reality of a 20th century UN struggling to respond to 21st century challenges, in which it finds itself in a helpless state in responding to regional and international proxy wars like that in Syria.
It is often argued that talks are failing due to ‘irreconcilable’ differences between the United States and Russia over the conflict, and that is absolutely right. But there is another reason as well that is leading to failure of peace talks. We all know that external intervention has the adverse effect of prolonging a conflict beyond its natural life span. One study that was based on every UN peacemaking effort since 1945 found that peacemaking efforts succeeded in resolving two-thirds of conflicts where only two sides were involved. However, where there were multiple sides to a conflict, the success rate dropped considerably to only a quarter.
That is exactly what is happening in the case of Syria. The Syrian conflict has multiple dimensions with many parties involved. Syria has become the theatre for a battle between Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran, between the West (along with its Arab and Turkish allies) against the so-called Islamic State, between the West and Russia, and between Turkey and the Kurds, who Ankara sees as a threat to its own territorial integrity. What began as a conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and sections of his own people has become a wider regional struggle. Consequently, in Syria’s case it is becoming very hard to get a peaceful solution that is acceptable to all sides.
The two powers, the United States and Russia, which are supporting different sides in the conflict, can play a vital role in bringing a solution to the conflict through a dialogue between all parties. Together, the United States and Russia should push for negotiations that convene the regional supporters of the opposition and the regime. A regional track is needed because the Syrian civil war has become a proxy regional war principally between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but with important roles played by Qatar, Turkey, and Iraq. Until the main external supporters reach some sort of accommodation, they would continue to fund, arm and otherwise give their proxies a hope of victory.
The same kind of dynamic played out frequently during the Cold War, lasting decades in Angola, Guatemala and Vietnam. The United States can nudge Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey into a more constructive role in the negotiations, and Russia might be able to do the same with Iran. Any future peace talks for Syria should be structured in a multilayer format, including every party in the conflict such as the US and Russia, regional countries supporting different parties in the conflict, the Syrian government and opposition groups. It is essential for key regional powers including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to accept the need to militarily disengage from the Syrian conflict, and to accept that a broader regional sectarian conflagration is not in anyone’s strategic interests. Behind these powers, the Arab League, the United States and Russia have a crucial role to play as potential guarantors of any negotiated settlement. It is also essential for the UN Security Council to signal its determination to punish violations of any peace agreement.
But to achieve this kind of a comprehensive dialogue some preparatory measures should be undertaken. A working groups model of the peace process should also be considered. It is similar to the earlier proposal of thematic working groups put forth by the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Mr Mistura originally envisioned four such groups that would sound out Syrian actors and their sponsors on discrete issues instead of trying to conclude one single peace and transition deal for all of Syria. Moreover, the ‘talk while you fight’ arrangement can also be tired. Certainly, it won’t end the war, but it can perhaps limit the human suffering, allow for constructive engagement across the frontlines on isolated issues, and pave the way for a more meaningful political dialogue later.