x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

New Syria meeting looks like the only hope of progress

Compromise would be a bitter pill for the US and Russia to swallow over Syria, but that is the only way to avoid a bigger crisis.

One can only hope for the success of the recently announced US-Russian plan to convene a conference aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria. Compromise would be a bitter pill for the warring factions to swallow, making the effort a real challenge. But a conference may be the last chance to avert a greater disaster.

That Syria's only hope is so faint is, distressingly, the unfortunate reality.

I believe John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, when they say they agree that the conflict must end and that they share the goals of defeating extremism and supporting regional stability. But reaching these goals will not be as easy as stating them.

The world has changed since the days of the Cold War, when the US and the USSR operated through surrogates. Make no mistake about it, the Syrian conflict has become a proxy war, but the Americans and Russians are not calling the shots. Competing regional groupings are supporting, and even driving, their Syrian allies.

The details of the proposed US-Russian conference are undefined. But one thing is certain: if all the regional players who have a hand in Syria are not involved, the effort will surely fail.

It will not be easy to secure the participation of the regime and the opposition groups, not to mention Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Jordan. Convening such an all-party conference will surely test US and Russian diplomacy, and require the expenditure of significant political capital.

To answer those who see this effort as a waste of energy and resources, and who argue instead for a quick-fix military escalation, one need only point to Iraq and Afghanistan. The bigger waste would be to allow a continuation of the slaughter or to cause it to escalate.

In Syria, it is now clear that there can be no victor and no vanquished. The regime and those who support it - out of conviction, desperation or fear of the unknown - cannot be totally defeated. Nor can the opposition be subdued, since it has both determined internal support and legitimate grievances and fears.

The clash is rooted in rival visions of Syria's future: as a participatory democracy, an Islamic state, or a secular bastion of Arab resistance against the machinations of the West and its allies.

Sadly, however, all of these are fantasies. The Syria of old is forever gone; a democracy will not easily emerge from the breakdown of the old order; and a terrible price would be paid by Syria's minorities in fulfilling the dreams of religious extremists. But rhetoric aside, this war has become an ugly and bloody struggle for survival.

As a result, we are left today with the same choices we faced two years ago. We can continue this slow dance of death, we can throw petrol on the flames and accelerate the killing, or we can decide to put an end to the suffering of Syria's people by seeking a negotiated solution leading to the end of the regime and a phased transition.

With the US and Russia in agreement we have taken only the first step. Now the hard work begins. The regime can be expected to try to define terms for its participation that will be unacceptable to the opposition, which indeed will likely refuse to participate in any setting that includes the regime.

But obstacles or rejection can't be the end of the story. The way this conflict is already spilling over Syria's borders, threatening the stability of the entire region, makes it imperative that real pressure be applied on both sides and their supporters to say "yes".

It is worth noting that all this plays out against a backdrop of rather frightening developments: conflicting reports of use of chemical weapons by the regime or elements of the opposition; Israel's unilateral assaults on Syrian installations in and around Damascus; increasing flows of refugees into neighbouring countries (it is estimated that one-fifth of all Syrians are now either in exile or internally displaced); deepening sectarian division in Lebanon and growing Lebanese involvement in Syria's fighting; and growing bipartisan pressure in the US calling on the Obama administration to support the opposition militarily.

All of these worrisome developments should cause us to answer tough questions. Does America need to become engaged in another war in the heart of the Middle East? Will the region or the American people accept what this involvement will require in the long-term? Can the region absorb a collapse of the Syrian regime and state and the fragmentation that will follow? Can Lebanon and Jordan survive an escalation of Syria's war? Does anyone seriously believe in the fantastic notion that, at the end of the fighting and the defeat of the regime, extremist radical groups will be easily disarmed?

If the answers to any of these questions are "no", then it is imperative that the US-Russian effort be supported and a negotiated solution be found. It will not be perfect, and it will be difficult for all parties to accept. But it will end the bloodletting, avert a deeper crisis, and start Syria on the long, slow path from authoritarian rule to a democratic future.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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