Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Syrian peace talks loom

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad

By Gwynne Dyer

UNITED Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has set the cat among the pigeons. His last-minute invitation to Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria came as an unwelcome surprise to the United States, which still instinctively rejects Iranian involvement in anything, and to Syria’s National Coalition, the umbrella grouping of the “moderate” rebel factions.

Their outrage was predictable, for Iran is the main outside supporter of the Syrian regime. The National Coalition’s spokesman Louay Safi promptly tweeted: “The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in [the peace talks] unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran’s invitation.” However, the point of a peace conference is not to talk to your friends; it is to talk to your enemies.

All may not be lost, for Ban Ki-Moon only invited the Iranians to the UN-hosted preliminary conference that opens in Montreux in Switzerland on Wednesday. The actual talks between the Syrian parties start in Geneva on Friday, and the Syrian opposition may still show up for them – in which case the radical shifts that have been happening behind the scenes in Syria may finally show up on the main stage.

There are two big changes. One is that the Russians and the Americans are now basically on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship in Syria). The other is that some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will return to Syria within a year or two.

What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.

Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.

The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared the use of poison gas as a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.

Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. There was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it their own.

More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. And the US and Russia are now working on a deal that would swing the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield) over to the regime’s side.

General Salim Idris, the commander of the FSA, said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.

He was actually signaling that The Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”

The jihadis will not be at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and (maybe) the Syrian National Coalition. It would be an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path. And even if it doesn’t happen now, it will happen later, somewhere else.

Even if the regime and the FSA can form a joint front to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones, the fighting in Syria will continue for many months. The end will be quite ragged, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years and years away.

Gwynne Dyer in an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries


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