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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

Syria Peace Talks a Small Step, but Leans Forward

Monday 16 November 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

When diplomats from seventeen countries sit down together for the first time in a particular format and after “a frank and constructive discussion” for over seven hours manage to find common ground to issue a joint statement spelling out in nine points their “mutual understanding”, although “substantial differences remain” regarding an acute regional conflict, that is a commendable effort—especially, when it is about “the grave situation in Syria and how to bring about an end to the violence as soon as possible”.

Indeed, the joint statement, issued in Vienna in the evening of Friday, October 30, is notable for both bringing together a common ground between the participants as well as for giving a sense of direction and a pledge that the Ministers who attended the talks will reconvene within two weeks “to continue these discussions” and in the meanwhile “working to narrow remaining areas of disagreement, and build on areas of agreement”.

The salience of the joint statement lies in its neatly sidestepping the contentious issue of the future of President Bashar Al-Assad and instead focus on the peace process in search of a settlement and the fight against terrorism. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, couldn’t have put it better when he said afterward: “The future of Syria or the future of all these peace talks and Syrian-led negotiations should not be held up by an issue of a future of one man. Basically, I believe it is up to the Syrian people, who have to decide the future of President Assad.”

The highlights of the joint statement are: a) the unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character of Syria are “funda-mental”; b) the rights of all Syrians must be protected; c) the peace process will be under the UN auspices; d) the political process will comprise the representatives of the Syrian Government and the opposition; e) it will be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, and the “Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”; f) the political process will lead to “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance”, followed by a new Constitution and elections under UN supervision in which “all Syrians, including the diaspora” will be eligible to participate”. In the meanwhile, modalities of a ceasefire will be explored, which will, however, exclude the Islamic State and other extremist groups. A follow-up meeting is expected next week.

It does not need much ingenuity to figure out that the stance of Russia and Iran has been vindicated to a very great extent. How could this have happened? The short answer is that the United States has begun distancing itself from the position of its so-called ‘allies’ in Syria—Saudi Arabia in particular. The body language at the Vienna talks suggests an overarching US-Russia amity. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sat side by side and frequently consulted each other. The friendly atmosphere was evident also during their joint press conference after the talks in Vienna.

The unspoken question is: in an “inclusive” political process where the people of the country are to be the final decision-makers regarding the future of their country—and where even the Syrian diaspora can participate—how on earth can one single individual by the name of Assad be made the solitary exception because Saudi Arabia doesn’t like his face (for whatever reason)? The Saudi insistence that Assad should be removed through a political settlement or by force has become untenable. What Saudi Arabia seeks is a political order in Syria that is imposed top-down, whereas the joint statement takes the contrarian position that it is the Syrian people who will choose their next leadership—not any foreign power.

During the Kerry-Lavrov press conference, it transpired that Moscow has proposed more cooperation with Washington for a coordinated fight against the Islamic State. Kerry said he would seek President Barack Obama’s approval for the Russian proposal. Meanwhile, it is to be noted that Russia has only perfunctorily disagreed with President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy around four dozen military advisers to Syria. (Iran’s reaction, too, is notably low-key.) Of course, Obama’s detractors in the US have gone to town to vilify him by claiming he has gone back on his word that he will not put ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. But it stands to reason that this is not a ‘mission creep’, as is made out to be by Obama’s critics.

Of course, there is a dichotomy in the Obama Administration’s overall approach on Syria following the Russian military intervention. Clearly, Obama is figuring out his way forward and is unsure of the downstream repercussions of the Russian military operations. The tantalising question is whether the US isn’t, after all, edging closer to the original Russian proposal for a concerted effort to fight the IS? Indeed, if a nationwide ceasefire takes hold in Syria between the government and the ‘moderate’ opposition concurrent with the political process (which is what has been envisaged in the joint statement), it opens the door to a Russian-American coordinated military effort against the IS. Obama cannot be oblivious of that.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.