Syria talks: Some progress or just wishful thinking?

Maybe surprisingly, but the powers agreed on transition period that should lead to elections in Syria. Still many uncertainties, but it seem there is a progress. How do you read this, what are the biggest obstacles on the way out of Syrian conflict, maybe also when we take into account what just happened in Paris? Read few comments.

Sean Foley, Associate Professor, Department of History, Middle Tennessee State University

Yes, I would agree that the talks in Vienna marked the beginning of a process by which Moscow and Washington will bridge the gaps between themselves over the Syrian civil war and the larger gaps between their chief allies in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia. That process will only intensify in light of the horrific events in Paris, for they underscore the dangers of allowing the civil war to continue. The next step will be to find a diplomatic mechanism to frame a resolution to the Syrian civil war in such a way that no one is blamed. The possibility of good will—rather than accusation and suspicion—must exist on all sides if the international community is to form a united front and defeat the Islamic State.

Nadim Shehadi, Director, Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, Fletcher School at Tufts University, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

I do not see it as progress at all. I have written a piece a couple of years ago comparing the situation we are in no with that of Iraq between 1991 and 2003 when the international community and the US were hesitant about what to do with Saddam after ousting him from Kuwait.

We are in the same position now with Assad and have given him carte blanche to crush the revolt with the help of Russia and Iran.

You mention Paris, this is of course relevant and changes things but only to make the process longer and more damaging. Assad cannot be re-instated, he lost power, no matter how many people he kills. Assad and Russia are not fighting ISIS, they are propping it up and fighting its rivals. I think that if you want to understand what Russian and Syrian strategy is towards ISIS, you are better placed than I am to compare it with Chechnya where every atrocity was also an opportunity and in the end the rebel that won made a deal with Putin.

I also think that the current strategy against ISIS is counterproductive:

If there are two future scenarios, one being a nightmare and the other a best case one, the bottom line is that we should be helping movement in the right direction and not exacerbating the situation by pushing in the other. The best case scenario is a future without ISIS and without Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, both of which are committing atrocities and the best recruitment tool for the other. The worst case one is where ISIS expands and takes over Jordan, Saudi Arabia and parts of the Gulf and the rest is ruled by the IRGC.

In this piece I tried to explain that radicals draw power and legitimacy by mutually capitalizing on each other’s threat and by fighting each other and they do so at the expense of their own mainstream. ISIS and the IRGC are such radicals, where ISIS gains territory and support in Sunni dominated areas precisely because it is fighting the IRGC and the IRGC also dominates and is establishing hegemony over Shiite areas under the banner of protecting them against ISIS. ISIS and the IRGC feed each other and the end game is the victory of both, not against each other, but against the mainstream in their own constituency.

By seeming to fight ISIS in alliance with the IRGC, the US led coalition is certainly moving the region in the direction of the worst case scenario, both by strengthening the radicals and weakening the mainstream vis a vis the radicals. (I am allergic to the word ‘moderate’). The policy is thus self defeating and misguided, this is why ISIS can walk into towns with no resistance and will continue to do so.

I still do not have an answer, but the current balance of power, with Russia and Iran dictating the terms in favor of Assad and helping him crush the opposition is certainly not going to lead to a solution.

James Goode, Professor of History, Grand Valley State University

The war in Syria has confounded all attempts at a solution. It should be clear now that it will not be ended through military means. Thus, the fact that all the parties are sitting down around the table to discuss the future is definitely a positive development. It is especially significant that the Iranians are present for the first time, as they have taken such a critical role in defending the regime of Bashir al-Assad. What the results of these negotiations might be is not easy to imagine. If the assembled states call for new elections in Syria, carrying out this decision will be extremely problematic. For example, will the millions of Syrians who have fled abroad take part in these elections? If they do not, will the results be preordained to favor the Assad regime. Then, of course, there is the issue of fairness and honesty in the election process. Sometimes we can only hope that the mere presence of representatives from all the concerned parties together in one room might lead to some positive decision, which we can at present barely glimpse. The impact of the Syrian conflict has spread far beyond the borders of Syria, not only to neighboring countries but to European nations as well. This fact may serve as an added inducement to reach an effective settlement. Although I prefer diplomacy to war, at present I am not overly optimistic; seldom has the challenge seemed greater.

Jeffrey VanDenBergChair, Political Science & Geography Department, Professor of Political Science, Director of Middle East Studies, Drury University

There is some momentum on coordinating international responses to Syria, and it seems likely that additional movement will happen in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The transition plan initiated by Russia makes sense, because it allows the US a way out of their dilemma of insisting on Bashar al-Asad leaving the presidency. US Secretary of State Kerry said that this is acceptable because the Syrian people will get to decide who should lead them. Of course, motivating all of this (especially the easing of US and Saudi conditions) is the consensus that ISIS poses a serious threat to international security, and that all other considerations now take a back seat. The humanitarian catastrophe of Syria refugees and the resulting political pressures in Europe are also pushing towards negotiated solutions.

Nonetheless, there are considerable obstacles to this plan. These include which Syrian groups are recognized as participants in the process and which are labeled as terrorists and therefore ineligible. The US may be put in the difficult position of being accused of abandoning its Syrian opposition allies. The Kurdish issues are particularly challenging. None of the regional and global rivalries that have made the Syrian war so intractable are gone, and it remains to be seen if cooperation can continue as the details of the political settlement are negotiated.

Alex VatankaScholar, Middle East Institute

I would say the French have arguably the longest and deepest history in the Arab World among any Western nation. They are therefore best equipped to assess the need to intervene militarily in response to these terrorist attacks versus weighing the potential longer term implications of doing so.

I suspect there is no chance for a French knee jerk reaction here. Paris knows better than that. President Hollande will have to react and do so in a big way but that need not be in a unilateral step but can take place in the shape of a energized French leadership of the Western world role against ISIS. That leadership is today missing and is one up for grabs if President Hollande choses to invest in this policy objective. The EU states will follow him. There can’t be anything but fully fledged cooperation among EU states now.

But that’s only half of his challenge. The other challenge is start from zero and reexamine all the counter-terrorism policies and practices that failed to prevent these disastrous attacks. Hollande can’t do one and not the other. The fight against ISIS outside France has to happen in tandem with much better capacity in identifying and stopping ISIS terrorists that are already on French soil. They will try and strike again.

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