A third comprehensive attempt by the international community to kick-start a series of peace negotiations aimed at ending the civil war in Syria concluded on Oct. 30 in Vienna, Austria. After eight hours of what could only be described as a long-winded and acrimonious meeting, Frederica Mogherini, the European Union’s high commissioner for foreign affairs, gave a brief one-minute statement explaining what was accomplished, which problems and concerns remain on the table, and what the 20 participants at the Vienna meetings hope to accomplish in the next two weeks when they assemble together once more.
“I would say that this meeting was definitely not an easy one,” Mogherini said, “but for sure a historical one as we had, for the first time, all the actors around the table and, I would say, a very constructive atmosphere.” She concluded with smidgen of hope: “I believe that we have some common ground on which we can build on in the future.”
There was indeed some progress made in the negotiations, even if it was peanuts compared to what needs to be enacted for any possibility of an established, inclusive political-transition process.
And yet the fact that only marginal agreement was made among the major stakeholders around the table is indicative of how complicated and internationalized the Syrian conflict has become. If Syria was in the midst of a civil war in 2012, the country is now in the throes of a proxy war with Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah on the side and the United States, the EU, and the Gulf states on the other.
Just a few short weeks ago, you would be hard-pressed to find any diplomat or official in the US, Russia, Western Europe, or the Middle East who would have predicted that 18 countries and two supranational organizations (the EU and the United Nations) would agree to come together on neutral soil and dedicate an entire day to talking about the intricacies of the Syrian conflict. If you did, you certainly wouldn’t find those diplomats confident in the notion that the two major regional rivals antagonizing one another in Syria—Saudi Arabia and Iran—would agree to sit down in the same room and hear each other out.
Yet this is precisely what occurred in Vienna. There is no love lost between Riyadh and Tehran; the two are at a low point in the bilateral relationship. In Syria, Saudi Arabia is doing everything possible to pressure the Assad regime militarily in the hope that Assad himself will find it in his interest to negotiate his own downfall. Iran, of course, is doing precisely the opposite—organizing thousands of Iraqi Shia militia groups to fight on Assad’s behalf, deploying additional Quds Force operatives to advise pro-Assad military units on the ground, and funneling plane-loads of ammunition and weapon to government forces. Saudi Arabia and Iran could not be more at odds on the subject of Syria.
As tough as reaching any accord will surely be, the carnage that has been destroying Syria over the past four and a half years cannot be resolved without some kind of accommodation between Riyadh and Tehran—both of whom have aided and abetted the violence by supporting their favored proxies. The Vienna talks go a long way in sorting out some of the bad blood. Merely getting Saudi Arabia and Iran in the same room is win in and of itself.
There is a basic rule in diplomacy: the more players involved, the less likely that something concrete or detailed will come out of the negotiations. This is exactly what happened in Vienna. Outside of the most basic and universally agreed-upon elements, like expressing support for Syria’s territorial integrity and increasing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, the first round of talks was essentially a wash on substance.
Despite US state department spokesman John Kirby’s attempt to highlight the differences between the Vienna communiqué and the June 2012 Geneva communiqué, the two documents are nearly identical in terms of what needs to happen on the political front. In fact, as former state department official Fred Hof has written, the Vienna document finalized last week is far more vague than the Geneva communiqué from three and a half years ago: there is no mention of the plight of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe; no reference to the horrific violence that men, women, and children have endured every day for the past four and a half years; and no specific call for the Syrian government to allow civilians to leave areas on their own free will as is required under international humanitarian law.
With the exception of a renewed commitment to defeating ISIL and the importance of a political-transition process being owned and led by the Syrians themselves, the Vienna communiqué merely repeats the basic concepts already negotiated three years prior; the government and opposition must return to negotiations,; an all-inclusive and unified transitional government needs to be formed; and elections would need to follow.
As with Geneva, Vienna puts the world on record that all violence needs to stop for a transition process to succeed. And both avoid the most tricky political questions of them all: What role will president Bashar al-Assad play in a transitional government, and will he be able to run for the presidency again in the future?
As diplomats were meeting in Vienna, the Assad regime continued to bomb civilians with impunity. On the same day as the Vienna talks, 12 missiles were lobbed into a marketplace in the city of Douma, killing 89 people and wounding another 100. Over the next two weeks before the second round of discussions occur, hundreds of additional men, women, and children will die in surface-to-surface missile attacks, artillery bombardments, and barrel bombings. The violence in Syria is an open wound gushing blood on a diplomatic process that US secretary of state John Kerry is genuinely committed to maintaining.
Assad’s campaign of “mass homicide” at the very same time that a diplomatic process is occurring is right out of his regime’s playbook. In Feb. 2014, when Syrian opposition and regime representatives were theoretically negotiating a way to resolve the war, the Assad’s government increased its use of barrel bomb attacks on civilian neighborhoods, killing hundreds in a span of several days.
Like the barrel bombs that were dropped on Aleppo in Feb. 2014, the strikes on Douma are meant to send a message to the international community. Assad is telling the world loud and clear that he will continue to prosecute the war as he sees fit, regardless of what diplomats agree to halfway around the world.
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