The war in Syria has to end in a political solution. This is one of the very few things that most members of the international community agree on. In his recent speech at West Point, US President Barack Obama made clear that that “no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering any time soon.”[i] The Russian Foreign Ministry agrees the lack of any progress on a political settlement of the war only “results in more deaths and suffering in Syria every day.”[ii] The Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Lrijani, emphasises the need for “negotiations and dialogue,”[iii] and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague thinks that all sides need to “reach an inclusive political settlement that takes into account the needs and aspirations of all Syria’s communities.”[iv]
A political solution to the war in Syria is of course not a new idea. Neither is the apparent consensus within the international community that it is the only viable option to end the bloodshed. Peace initiatives, talks, and talks of talks are a constant by-product of the war. Nevertheless, it took almost three years just to get representatives from the regime and the opposition to sit down together in the same room at the UN in Geneva. For a few days in January and February 2014 there was a small glimmer of hope. It was quickly extinguished, though, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s chairman of the negotiations, apologised to the Syrian people that the talks hadn’t “helped them very much.”[v]
In the months since the Geneva conference virtually no progress has been made to find a political settlement. Instead around 200 Syrians die every day, adding to the war’s death toll that has already exceeded 150,000.[vi]
There are of course several reasons for why a political solution to the conflict remains elusive. The opposition is famously fragmented and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists act as powerful spoilers. Perhaps the most crucial reason, however, is that Bashar al-Assad still thinks that he can win the war. This year, his forces have made some territorial gains, and although a total military victory is nigh on impossible, so is a total defeat. This is why the Geneva talks failed and why no new negotiations have happened. A political solution requires compromises and the Assad regime simply doesn’t see the need to make any at the moment.
If the USA, Russia, the UK, Iran or the rest of the international community are serious about their commitment to a political solution, they will have to convince Assad that there is no alternative to negotiations, that he cannot win the war. There are two options of how this can be done: through diplomatic or military pressure.
Russia and Iran hold the key to the diplomatic option. They have the greatest sway over the Assad regime. Without their financial, military and political support, Assad would be in serious trouble. However, this support in the absence of any concessions by the regime in the political process suggests that Russia and Iran are ultimately unwilling to use their leverage over Assad.
The only meaningful concession the regime has made since the beginning of the conflict was the deal to give up its chemical weapons, and Russia played a decisive role in this. But it is also important to remember that the deal was only reached after Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ had been crossed with the chemical weapons attack in August 2013. Russian pressure on Assad may have been important, but American missiles pointing at Syria surely helped as well.
“When you fear for your life, then you are going to trade,”[vii] says Alistair Burt, a former UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. To make Assad fear for his life and to bring him to the negotiating table, it may therefore be necessary to renew the military pressure on his regime by stepping up support for the opposition forces.
It is a sad reality that political solutions to end wars often only become possible through temporary escalation. The example of the war in Bosnia Herzegovina demonstrates this. Here, a brutal war raged for three years. All initiatives for a political settlement failed. Then, in 1995, NATO support enabled a Croat-Bosnian alliance to make significant advances against the Bosnian Serbs. However, NATO did not allow a total Croat-Bosnian victory. This would only have resulted in more ethnic cleansing, this time with the Bosnian Serbs as the main victims. Instead all sides were brought together to negotiate and the Dayton Agreement was reached.
The objective of empowering opposition forces in Syria should therefore not be to defeat the Assad regime, but merely to convince him that he cannot win the war. A western military involvement of the same scale as NATO’s Bosnia operation is currently unthinkable in Syria. There is no political will to launch missile strikes, an air campaign, much less a full-scale invasion. However, the USA and its European allies can certainly provide the armed opposition with the military equipment and training it needs to tackle the regime’s tanks and airplanes. In his West Point speech Obama suggested that operations in this direction are already underway.
So far, the Obama administration has been extremely cautious in its military support for the opposition, mainly out of fear that American weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamists. This risk is of course difficult to eliminate, but it should also not be overstated. One of the main reasons why groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have become so influential in Syria is their military effectiveness, not their extremist ideologies. Increasing the military capability of more moderate groups could therefore also limit the influence of the radical Islamist.
The war in Syria has to end in a political solution. Ultimately it of course appears counter-intuitive to feed additional weapons into a war that has already killed so many people. American weapons in the hands of opposition forces will inevitably be used to kill more. But as long as Russian and Iranian influence, for whatever reasons, is not enough to convince Assad to make concessions, it may be the only way to create the conditions for meaningful negotiations.
[i] BBC (2014) “Obama West Point Speech in Full with Analysis.” BBC Online, 29 May. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-27606537 [Accessed 31 May 2014].
[ii] Voice of Russia (2014) “Russia Urges Setting of Date for New Round of Syria Talks in Geneva.” Voice of Russia, 15 May. http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_05_15/Russia-urges-to-set-date-for-new-round-of-Syria-talks-in-Geneva-0341/ [Accessed 31 May 2014].
[iii] Press TV (2014) “Iran Backs Political Solution to Syria: Larijani.” Press TV, 5 May. http://www.presstv.com/detail/2014/05/05/361455/iran-backs-political-solution-to-syria/ [Accessed 31 May 2014].
[iv] Hague, W. (2014) “Foreign Secretary William Hague to the Montreux Peace Talks on Syria.” Gov.com, 22 January. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretary-statement-to-geneva-conference-on-syria [Accessed 31 May 2014].
[v] Maigua, P. (2014) “Syrian Peace Talks Adjourned Indefinitely.” United Nations Radio, 15 February. http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/2014/02/syrian-peace-talks-adjourned-indefinitely/#.U2J5dl6CTwI [Accessed 31 May 2014].
[vii] Burt, A. (2014) Interview. London, 4 March.