The United Nations has announced a cessation of the Syrian Peace talks in Munich until the end of February. Announcing the collapse of the talks, the United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura took great pains to assert that the negotiations had not failed, but were simply experiencing a hiatus until the 25th of February 2016.
While admitting that “there’s more work to be done,” Mr de Mistura assured the press that this “is not the end… They came and they stayed. Both sides insisted on the fact that they are interested in having a political process started,” he said.
But he noted that: “I have concluded, frankly, that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but by the stakeholders.” According to the New York Times, Mr. De Mistura then suggested that the Assad government’s failure to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria by allowing food and medicine into rebel-held towns had prevented any serious discussions.
A sentiment echoed by the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who in a letter to the United Nations Security Council declared: “The latest shelling and bombardments have destroyed many more Syrian lives, as well as schools and hospitals, and have created large numbers of internally displaced persons, many of whom will become refugees.
“The escalated military activity by several parties, and the threats to resort to further use of force, risk derailing efforts to find a sustainable political solution.”
A long road
But it was always going to be a long and difficult road to get to a peace deal. Domestically both the Assad Regime and the Democratic Opposition are nowhere near ready to sit down and play nice. During the past five years the Assad regime has persistently showed a lack of respect for the peace process by focusing its military campaign on those seeking a more democratic political situation rather than terrorist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The recent Russian bombing of Aleppo, a rebel held city, during the latest talks is one such example.
The opposition forces are understandably unwilling to sit down and talk. They are adamant that Assad is simply wasting their time, as their demands that sieges be lifted on rebel-held towns, airstrikes halted, and political prisoners released have not been met. The leader of the democratic opposition’s High Negotiating Committee, Riad Hijab, stated that: “The regime is trying to buy time without doing anything,” and over twitter the HNC announced it would not return to Geneva “until it sees progress on the ground.”
Another issue with the negotiations is the plethora of opposition groups. At present there are over 20 recognized opposition groups to the Assad regime, which can create issues in negotiations. Last year Kazakhstan hosted a series of talks to allow over 30 representatives from various Syrian opposition groups to meet and chart a road map for their vision of Syria’s future. The problem is, they are not the only ones involved.
Compounding these issues is the involvement of nations such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. Meeting last week in Munich these countries hashed out a ceasefire agreement, which is due to start on the 1st of March.
But will it be enough? Probably not, Russia is certainly not slowing down its campaign in Syria, if anything it has escalated its air campaign. In Aleppo, Russian cluster bombs have destroyed large sections of the city, including schools and children’s hospitals all because it was controlled by the moderate opposition forces. Clearly, Russia is hoping to provide the Assad regime with a stronger grasp on Syria prior to the renewal of peace negotiations on the 25th of February.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also keen to enter the Syrian conflict in more a tangible way. At a recent meeting at NATO Headquarters, Saudi Arabia announced that it wishes to form a coalition force and engage on the ground in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS.
However, there is a prevalent concern among other nations that troops from the countries, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim, would cause a rise in sectarian violence by supporting the Sunni opposition which is losing ground to Assad’s Hezbollah and Iranian Shia fighters.
Turkey has also been accused by Russia of masterminding an incursion into Syria. According to Russian sources Turkey has been building up infrastructure along the borders with Syria consistent with what is required for a large scale movement of military vehicles. Considering the recent bombings in Turkey by Kurdish separatists it would be safe to assume that Turkey would be considering movements against these groups in Syria.
Is peace possible?
All the signs point to the Syrian and Iraqi conflict being a protracted one. The deadline for a ceasefire of March the 1st is under question due to the multitude of opposition and regime groups that must agree during the negotiating period.
It will also be complicated by the current international environment, as Russian Prime Minister Medvedev pointed out in an interview:
“The Americans and our Arab partners must think well: do they want a permanent war?” It would be impossible to win such a war quickly, especially in the Arab world, where everybody is fighting against everybody. All sides must be compelled to sit at the negotiating table instead of unleashing a new world war.”
The current massing of 350,000 soldiers, 20,000 tanks, 2,450 warplanes, and 460 military helicopters in northern Saudi Arabia for the region’s largest ever military exercise “Northern Thunder” places doubts on the international community’s willingness to negotiate through this crisis.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Sudan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, and several other nations look more like they are preparing for military engagement, and if Russia decides to support Assad and picks a fight with coalition forces, America will likewise be drawn into the conflict. Meanwhile in Europe, counties will continue to suffer under the strain of thousands more refugees escaping the conflict.
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.