Getting from Syrian Peace Talks to Syrian Peace

The Syrian people deserve negotiations that focus on rescuing the idea of Syria itself.

With the second round of Syrian peace talks in recent weeks about to take place in Vienna, the United States and other participants need to raise their sights from a narrow focus on the specific modalities of a negotiation between the antagonists to incorporate a broader strategy for confronting the underlying dynamics of this entangled conflict. Unless these underlying dynamics become central to a strategy, it is unlikely that a diplomatic track will bring the Syrian civil war to a halt. Confronting these dynamics should be the focus of U.S. and Western policy, and the basis for exploring whether the Russians and Iranians can be levered into playing parallel, constructive roles.

One of the primary underlying dynamics that needs to be addressed before settlement terms can even be set is the battle over competing ideas. In fact, to make matters even more convoluted, there are actually two battles for ideas raging at once. The first is being waged by ISIS in the northeast part of the country (and in Iraq). In this battle, ISIS is trying to smash the idea of Syria and a Syrian national identity. The idea that they are trying to propagate is not just that Syria has ceased to be a viable going concern, but also that it is illegitimate. By wresting away Syria’s most vital border crossings with Iraq, it is reinforcing the narrative that the boundaries set through the treaties of Sevres in 1920 and Lausanne in 1923, when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered (based partly on earlier secret dealings between the British and French), are artificial, illegitimate and deserving of being destroyed. It is also battling the idea of Syria and Iraq by sowing Sunni-Shia tensions, thereby destroying any basis for nationalist cohesion within society that could possibly rise up and pose a challenge to the harsh reality of ISIS’s Salafist, jihadist variant of a Sunni caliphate. This ISIS creed is a critical challenge to be overcome: keeping alive the idea of Syria as a viable entity—even on life support—is a necessary exit ramp for this conflict, just as the negation of Syria (and Iraq) has been instrumental in recruiting and mobilizing ISIS followers in the first place.

The second battle of ideas is taking place further south in Syria, and is being waged by the Assad regime, the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah against a complex and incoherent mix of anti-regime rebels. While in the north ISIS propagates an anti- or supra-nation-state creed that rejects the existing territorial order of states in the Middle East, including Syria, that creed is not shared by the other “sides” fighting in the south and elsewhere in the country. In fact, the pro-Assad regime forces in the south are indirectly confronting ISIS’s creed against the reconstitution of Syria, not through an ideological narrative as ISIS is doing, but instead by fighting for the survival of the Syrian state apparatus and battling rebel groups of all stripes and colors.

But by focusing more on keeping Assad in power than on battling ISIS, it appears as if the war is being fought more over the spoils of what is left of Syria than about reconstituting the idea of Syria as a nation. While questions about Assad’s fate will obviously be important, the danger of making who will govern Syria the focal point in the negotiations at this juncture is the loss of focus on the bigger battle to salvage and restore the idea of Syria itself. In Vienna, this question about whether the priority should be the fate of Assad or the broader challenges to the notion of Syria is important, as it provides the potential basis for the eventual ideological marginalization and isolation of ISIS, and the reintegration of the country.

This polarity over creeds and ideas should be the entry point for U.S. policy. It provides the basis for systematically testing the intentions of other participants in the conflict. This should frame the question of priorities, and be the level at which the debate between Russia and the U.S. takes place in Vienna. If they can agree that the primary threat comes from those challenging the creed and idea of Syria itself, namely ISIS, then the question of who governs Syria and how to establish transitional arrangements becomes less of an intractable obstacle to negotiation.

The role for the U.S. should be to reframe the debate in these terms at the negotiating table, while at the same time using the Saudis and Turks to make clear to the Russians, Iranians and Assad himself that the early Russian splash in Syria notwithstanding, the anti-Assad forces (with our support) will be using powerful means to prevent a rout of rebel forces. It will be important to keep some pressure on the Russians and their proxies, even while keeping alive a diplomatic track and opening the door to constructing a more broadly based coalition of the willing against ISIS. None of the Vienna parties supports the destruction of the Middle East’s state system, a point that should provide some common ground amidst all the factional and sectarian mix.