For All Sides, Syrian Peace Will Involve Dealing with the Devil

Peace hasn’t taken root in Syria over the past four years—but not for a lack of effort.

Since 2011, various luminaries, organizations and governments have proffered plans to stop the carnage in Syria, and to create a unity government to enable constitutional reforms and clean elections in which the millions of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries (mainly Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) can participate.

The Arab League dispatched a mission to Syria at an early stage of the war, and a sixty-person monitoring group resulted; it lasted barely a month and was driven out by the violence.  Kofi Annan tried to create peace and failed, resigning in 2012. His successor as UN peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, gave up in 2014. The Iranians offered their six-point peace plan at the end of that year; it withered on the vine, as did the proposals made by Assad in 2013. The United States and Russia held meetings on Syria in 2012, in the wake of the crisis created by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but failed to produce the barest blueprint for a settlement.

If peace hasn’t taken root in Syria during the past four years, the problem hasn’t been a lack of effort.

The attempts listed above failed for their own particular reasons, of course, but they also all encountered the same immovable obstacles—ones that persist.

Assad has steadfastly refused to resign in the interest of jump-starting peace negotiations. He has denounced his foes as terrorists and claimed the right—no, the duty—to wage war against them. He favors diplomacy in principle but in practice insists on engaging only those who, in his assessment, haven’t “betrayed” Syria, which means that he has in effect excluded the opposition forces possessing the most military might. Without their participation, a settlement will amount to a piece of paper.

Assad’s stubbornness may well reflect a flaw in character, but it has been enabled and sustained by backing from Russia, China and Iran. The Russians and the Chinese have quashed Security Council resolutions that they have deemed one-sided in blaming solely Assad’s government for the violence. They have also blocked efforts to impose sanctions on Syria’s rulers.

Together with Iran, China and Russia have also rejected the demands of Assad’s adversaries and the United States, major European governments, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies: namely, that his resignation must precede peace talks.

The Syrian government now controls barely half the territory it did when the protests against it erupted in 2011 and segued into a civil war after the leadership responded by unleashing its security forces. Still, despite the gains made by anti-regime groups, Assad hasn’t become more flexible. He retains the support of powerful, determined patrons. Iran has deployed senior military advisers to support his army and induced Hezbollah warriors to take up arms in his behalf. Russia has supplied his military with arms.

And now, Vladimir Putin has sent a contingent of naval infantry along with armored vehicles and air defense missiles to Syria. More importantly, Russian jets are launching airstrikes, supplemented by ship-based missile attacks, to help the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies regain lost ground, especially in Idlib province in the northwest, whence the anti-regime forces have attacked Latakia, threatening the coastal homeland of Assad’s Alawite minority which dominates the government.

Don't expect Assad to quit in order to help the latest peace effort, a multi-nation conference that met in Vienna last month and will convene again in two weeks. He will hold on unless Iran and Russia force him out. They are not yet prepared to do, even though they probably understand that a deal on Syria will prove impossible as long as they cling to him.

The upshot: Assad runs a blood-soaked regime but the insistence of the West, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies that he must go before serious negotiations are feasible amounts to a deal killer. The United States finally appears to understand this and has been softening its position, albeit not publicly.

Not so Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies, however, and Washington’s ability to change their minds, even were it to try, remains uncertain. Soon after the Vienna meeting, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister again demanded Assad’s ouster—as if that would convince the hard-bitten power brokers (from the military and the intelligence services) in the Syrian government’s top echelons, notably Bashar’s brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, to fold their tent and fade away.