Last Friday, in Vienna, foreign ministers of 17 countries met over Syria. Almost 8-hour-long talks of such representative delegations can be called a UN-led international foreign policy conference on Syria. The event brought together the foreign ministers of Russia, U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Germany, France, Italy, and UK, as well as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security, and UN Special Representative on Syria.
The foreign ministers of U.S., Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia met separately ahead of the meeting, which revealed the “special interests group” representing big and regional powers. It is a “club” of the countries that most than others seek to resolve the Syrian conflict in their favor. The war-torn Syria was not represented in Vienna. The three-year-long civil war has turned Syria into an object of regional policy of foreign actors.
Participation of Iran’s representative in the diplomatic conference on Syria was called one of “achievements” of the Vienna meeting. The landmark deal on Iran’s nuclear program made in July 2015 among others gave Iran access to the talks in Vienna. However, Iran was not let to the “club.” Meantime, Iran is the major opponent of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and is directly involved in the military intervention in Syria on the side of President Assad.
Iran was not present at the preliminary discussion, which means that the Vienna conference had limited chances to result in decisions important for the conflict resolution. Saudi Arabia agreed to seat at the same negotiating table with Iran only under pressure of U.S. Consequently, such meeting of Saudi Arabia and Iran in a “narrow circle” is still impossible.
The conference in Vienna was limited also because there was no representative of Israel, one of the countries that more than others cares for the outcome of the Syrian crisis, the country that has been in a state of war with Syria since 1948.
As for Russia, the importance of the Vienna conflict for it is more than evident. The meeting in Vienna took place a month after Russia launched military operation in Syria. The Vienna meeting once again proved that Russia’s military intervention in Syria in terms of quite limited number of air strikes is of military-political nature rather than of military-strategic one. Formally, the conference in Vienna illustrated the viewpoints of the Russian experts who advocate restoring of Russia’s “partnership” with the West – it was destroyed by the Ukrainian crisis - by means of highlighting the Russian factor in resolution of international conflicts beyond the CIS.
After more than seven hours of talks, the ministers agreed on a number of points, including:
- The participants together with the United Nations will explore modalities for, and implementation of, a nationwide ceasefire to be initiated on a date certain and in parallel with this renewed political process.
- Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.
- State institutions will remain intact.
- Da'esh (‘Islamic state’ banned in Russia - editor’s note), and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.
Considering the last point in the joint statement, the ministers agreed to meet over Syria again within two weeks – this time with the participation of the representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition. During the preliminary talks, the list of the “terrorist organizations” operating in Syria should be drafted. This means that representatives of these forces will not be allowed to participate in the peace talks over Syria. They must be defeated.
The Vienna conference allows the remaining “opposition” supporting the idea of the united secular state to the talks and in future to power in Syria.
Looking back in history, the Geneva process of peaceful talks on Syria that was relaunched in October in Vienna resembles an episode from Russia’s history – the so-called Prinkipo meeting. That international conference planned by the Allies for Feb 15 1919 involving all the political groups and state formations of the former Russian Empire and the powers of the Entente was to develop a joint agreement to end the civil war and determine Russia’s fate. The supposed bonus to Russia’s representatives at the conference for their good behavior and result was participation in the Paris Peace Conference after WWI. The Entente’s initiative was inherently an attempt to establish all-Russian power under its aegis. However, a delegation of the Bolshevik Government was invited to the Prinkipo meeting and it confirmed its participation in the event. In response, all the other potential participants refused to arrive at the Prince Islands and the conference was cancelled. The anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia hoped for a large-scale military intervention by the Allies. However, they did not do it and Russia’s fate was predetermined – civil war. The Entente had to wrap up its direct intervention in Russia.
Likewise, the Vienna meeting a priori boycotts the most successful force in the military conflict in Syria of the last 1.5 year – “the Islamic State.” In addition, they a priori condemn it to destruction. Meantime, with IS attacking Syria at the beginning of 2014, most of the organizations of the “opposition” fighting Assad swore allegiance to that force. The Vienna meeting calls for a backward process i.e. the “opposition” must fully disassociate itself from IS and go on an agreement with President Assad on condition that it will receive (if it does) power in Syria through transitional government. The major problem of the relaunched Geneva process on Syria is division of “the opposition” into moderate secular and radical Islamic ones, as well as further consolidation of the moderate opposition, which will help it participate not only in the peace process but also in suppressing and defeating IS. The idea of the Vienna talks is as follows: the transitional government through its united military resources will destroy IS and other forces of the organizations considered as extremists by the UN.
As during the civil war in Russia, in the present-day Syria there is a factor of external intervention (and it is becoming more and more open). Yet, the interventionists do not hurry to wider involve into the conflict so that to destroy their No.1 enemy – “Islamic State.” All the interventionists refuse from land operation against IS, preferring to it an operation with limited targets, though formally all they are allegedly “fighting” IS. Like the meeting on the Prince islands, the renewed Geneva process on Syria denotes the problems of limited military intervention of the big powers in Syria.
Bashar al-Assad was still the central issue of the talks, like it was in Geneva. The sides failed to agree on the “fate” of the Syrian president. U.S. and allies had significantly corrected their stance on Assad before the Vienna meeting. They agreed that President Assad stayed in power for a period of six months, afterwards elections would decide his fate. Russia and Iran agreed with this. The reason why U.S. has softened its stance on Assad is clear. Assad’s immediate and unconditional leaving the president’s post would finally disorganize Syria from inside, which would most probably enable the most radical forces from IS to take control over the biggest part of Syria’s territory.
Diplomats in Vienna agreed to set up a special body that will engage in a Constitutional reform and conduct parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria. However, it appears to be unrealistic relying on a democratic procedure as a measure to overcome the domestic conflict in Syria. The civil war in Syria – before 2012, the country had a one-party system for about fifty years - has led the domestic policy of that country too far from imitation of the Western parliamentary democracy with its parties and civil society. In addition, the large-scale conflict and bloodshed have so much embittered the conflicting parties that elections will hardly help now. The fuel of the civil war in Syria has not burnt away yet.
Theoretically, the Constitutional reform anticipated in Syria should cancel the dictatorial powers of the president. Otherwise, Syria risks having a war-born extremist with wide powers on the post of the president. It would be perfect if Syria could use the imperfect model its neighbor Lebanon. However, in Syria there is no such form of the government. Furthermore, the civil war in Syria has driven the inter-confessional intolerance far beyond the possibility to achieve a compromise even after the Constitutional re-organization of the country on the basis of Lebanon’s model.
Turkey’s response does matter. That country does not agree on decentralization of Syria, as it will formalize the existence of the Kurdish autonomy on its borders. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan said ahead of the Sunday parliamentary elections in that country that Ankara will do its best, including launch preventive military operations, not to let Kurds create autonomy in Syria. Such statement helped Erdogan’s party win the elections. Meantime, Turkey is another interventionist in Syria.
The response of the representative of Saudi Arabia to the Vienna meeting results is noteworthy too. Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said: “There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council," he said, describing this as the "preferred option."
"The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power," Mr Jubeir warned. Saudi Arabia demanded that Iran’s troops that support Assad’s government forces are withdrawn from Syria without any conditions.
Hence, two major representatives of the “club” of the regional powers that more than others interested in Syria came out for further military solution to the conflict. This means that the hostilities will continue. It is more than probable that by the time of the next meeting on Syria that will involve also Syria’s representatives, no “opposition” force will agree to be in the transitional government with Assad. The demands of Assad’s opponents are predictable: the president of Syria must leave. That is why, like during the conference on the Prince Islands of 1919, the Geneva process of November 2015 the way it was framed in Vienna will fail. Intolerance of the parties to the civil war in Syria still leads to a triumph of the most radical forces involved in the conflict. The political settlement of the Syrian conflict can remain a stalemate for years to come.