Diplomacy rather than deadlock
Despite the hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, political decision-makers in Europe, Russia and the US still do not to appear to have realised that the civil war in Syria must be ended swiftly. And to date, the political will to actually commit to securing such a peace does not appear to be in place either in Moscow, Brussels or Washington. Moreover, while a series of fresh crises keeps the world in suspense, relations between NATO and Russia seem to have hit a new low.
The build-up in tension, however, began long before Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria. The latter simply marks the climax of a progression that took hold with the 2008 Russia-Georgia war at the latest and continued during the Ukraine crisis through to the annexation of Crimea. The differences between the West and Russia appear yet again to be insurmountable.
Fuel to the fire
The Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria represents a unilateral action that will simply serve to add fuel to the fire and unnecessarily prolong the conflict. Moscow's air strikes on the side of Assad will result in greater numbers of victims and render the prospect of finding a solution to the conflict ever more distant.
Whatever the solution to a civil war that has now lasted more than four years will look like, it will not be found on the battlefield. The intervention of Tehran and Moscow makes one thing absolutely clear: without Iran and Russia there can be no solution to the Syria conflict. Just as the regime's harshest critics must now have realised that there can be no peace without the participation of the Assad regime in negotiations. The bloodbath in Syria can only be brought to an end through joint diplomatic efforts – ideally as part of a UN initiative.
Viewed in this geopolitical context, the civil war in Syria is of enormous significance, and not just for the Middle East. Beyond the borders of the region, the conflict has the potential to change relations between NATO member states and Russia in the long-term. What happens in Syria will determine whether the confrontation between Russia and the West leads to further military upgrading and proxy wars, or whether it is indeed possible to work together to solve the most momentous civil war since the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Assad's barrel bombs driving people to flee
Many observers have for a long time been demanding a no-fly zone for Syria, to protect civilians from air raids and barrel bombs. According to a survey of some 900 Syrian refugees arriving in Germany conducted by the organisation ″Adopt a Revolution″, more than 70 percent of those polled cited Assad's barrel bombs as the main reason for their flight.
But it is still unclear how such a no-fly zone might be achieved. Further military escalation through Western intervention would certainly be the most dangerous scenario. Because of Russian operations in Syria and airstrikes by the US-led coalition against ″Islamic State″, conflicts between the larger protagonists in this crisis would appear to be unavoidable. Even a direct confrontation is conceivable.
A diplomatic solution has thus far been blocked by the various preconditions set by negotiating partners, making it impossible to get all the relevant parties around one table. Today, a diplomatic solution is probably unlikely to be reached without the Assad regime, as the Russian leadership continues to support Assad and what it views as the ″legitimate government of Syria″. As a conflict party, there is now also no way to get around Russia. Putin's military intervention has made a diplomatic solution additionally difficult, but it is not entirely out of the question.
It is not necessarily the case that the Putin regime will tether itself in the long-term to Assad as the president of a failing Syrian state. But Russia does however, with justification, point to the collapse of Iraq and Libya. A short-term solution must therefore be found with Assad, even if this may seem terrible in consideration of his crimes. If the precondition of a Syria without Assad were dropped, this could open up new scope for negotiations. These talks would then have to include the long-term future of a Syrian leadership without the involvement of the Assad family.
Battle against IS as lowest common denominator
However instead of preventing negotiations with maximised demands, diplomatic efforts should focus on the lowest common denominator: an end to the military action and a transition to a stable post-conflict order in Syria. Furthermore, all external actors agree that the battle against terrorist groups such as al-Nusra and Daesh must be continued.
Together with the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the EU should therefore begin a fresh diplomatic drive. The nuclear talks in Vienna could offer a blueprint in this regard, thereby helping to enlist other relevant actors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the process to find a solution to the conflict. Deciding which local Syrian actors also belong at the negotiating table is likely to be more difficult. In addition to representatives of the Assad regime, the ″National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces″ and representatives of the Kurdish regions in the north of the country also need to be invited to the negotiating table.
The aim of such talks would be to work towards a swift end to the violence against the Syrian civilian population. A ceasefire and humanitarian aid should be the top priority in this endeavour. Furthermore, efforts must be focused on co-ordinating international operations against Daesh and the creation of a foundation for a permanent treaty.
Whatever form the roadmap for negotiations takes, the process should be supported by a robust mandate from the UN Security Council, one that calls on all the various actors to observe a ceasefire. The UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and his team could co-ordinate the diplomatic efforts between local actors and lobby for support at an international level. The time for conducting negotiations exclusively under predetermined conditions is now past. Peace can only be achieved at the negotiating table.
Niklas Kossow & Ilyas Saliba
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Niklas Kossow is a PhD student at the ″Hertie School of Governance″ in Berlin and works for the ″European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building″. Ilyas Saliba is a PhD student at the Berlin ″Graduate School for Social Sciences″ at the Humboldt University in Berlin and a researcher at the department of democracy and democratisation at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).