Prospects for the international peace conference proposed by the U.S. and Russia to resolve the Syrian conflict are exceedingly low – and this assumes the conference will actually convene. Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe they are making military gains, and are equally confident they will continue to do so. Neither is ready to make the concessions necessary for a negotiated solution, let alone one that has even a remote chance of enduring. So why are the United States and Russia proceeding with the conference at all?
Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials claim that the Russian position on Syria has shifted, implying a readiness to accept the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a definite outcome of a transitional process, if not its precondition. But there is little to substantiate this. To the contrary, it is the U.S. that has shifted its stance. Having distanced itself from the Geneva communiqué that it endorsed with Russia almost immediately after signing it on June 30, 2012, the U.S. reaffirmed the document eleven months later as “the roadmap
” to a new Syria and as the “framework” for a political solution, without securing any concrete modifications to it.
Why is the United States now willing to proceed with a framework it walked away from nearly a year ago? What does it expect? Officially, Kerry
on May 22 that “in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva 1 in good faith,” the U.S. would consider increasing “support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country.” But in fact the U.S. has reached the limit of what it will do in Syria, and is apparently preparing for the possibility of having to seek a negotiated settlement based on terms largely set by the Assad regime and Russia, and Iran.
Some of the public signals seem to suggest the opposite, but this is misleading. Responding in part to lobbying from the U.S.
, the European Union partially lifted its embargo on the export of weapons to Syria on May 27, allowing individual governments to arm the opposition. The Syria Transition Support Act
, which was passed by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 21 for submission to the U.S. Senate and Congress, also prepares the way for “Lethal and increased non-lethal support” for vetted members of the Syrian opposition, including “defense articles, defense services, and military training.”
The direct supply of U.S. and European arms to the Syrian rebels will certainly send a strong political signal, but it is not certain that any arms will actually be supplied. The Syria Transition Support Act is non-binding and may not be passed by the U.S. Congress and Senate, and European Union member states have agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment that had previously been blocked despite the easing the arms embargo.
In any case, the exclusion of advanced man-portable anti-aircraft missiles means that its actual military impact will probably be tactical rather than strategic, and build up only gradually. This is hardly the game-changer that will compel the Assad regime to accept the terms demanded by the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syria for participation in the international conference.
The Friends of Syria have little scope for further escalation. The Syria Transition Support Act, for example, explicitly states that it may not be “construed as providing authorization for the use of military force by the United States Armed Forces.” This blocks not only the deployment of ground troops, which Kerry stated the U.S. administration does not intend to carry out, but also the use of any assets that would be required to enforce a no-fly zone or protect safe havens inside Syria. And without a significant U.S. contribution, neither the European Union nor NATO will undertake military action of this nature.
In any case, Russia is sending equally strong signals of its own that it will not allow overt military intervention by the Friends of Syria against the Assad regime. On May 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that his country intends to continue shipping sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, and this was followed by reports that highly-capable Yakhont anti-shipping cruise missiles had already been delivered. Even if subsequent media reports that Russia has suspended or canceled the S-300 contract are true—though Lavrov reconfirmed the Russian decision to proceed with the delivery on May 28—the pre-emptive effect has been achieved. For good measure, a dozen ships from Russia’s Pacific fleet have joined its naval flotilla off Syria’s coast.
Under these circumstances, the only way for the international peace conference to succeed is if the participating countries agree that al-Assad will remain in office until the end of his term in May 2014. Indeed, al-Assad will almost certainly claim a right to run in the next election as well, a message
he has relayed in a series of media interviews since the beginning of March. This is a complete non-starter for the opposition and the principal members of the Friends of Syria, known informally as the “Group of 11,” but they would have to yield if they seek a negotiated outcome at this time.
For al-Assad to remain in power until the next presidential election will be difficult, but not impossible, for the Group of 11 to accept, especially if the date of the poll is brought forward. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces continues to make al-Assad’s departure a precondition for peace talks, but this too will have to change if it is to be invited to the peace conference. The protracted struggle to redraw its internal factional balance since March reflects an attempt by Qatar and Saudi Arabia—both members of the Group of 11—to maintain tight control over the Coalition and ensure its compliance with whatever outcome the Group of 11 seeks at the peace conference.
The U.S. is clearly not willing to do more in the Syrian crisis. It seeks to downgrade its involvement while it focuses on achieving a deal on the Iranian nuclear file. When Kerry underlined that President Barack Obama “has taken no options off the table” with respect to the manner and nature of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, he was effectively stating that the U.S.—and by implication its allies—will not undertake more than the opposition can achieve for itself with the assistance it is given.
The U.S. will not simply wash its hands of the Syrian crisis, nor openly abandon the opposition, but by involving Russia in a joint effort it blurs responsibility for accepting an outcome at the international peace conference that it has so far opposed. The National Coalition could find itself in a very lonely position, amid ebbing international interest and support, and even more reliant than before on the interest and agendas of its two main Arab backers, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Should they fall in line with U.S. preferences, the National Coalition will have no option but to follow suit.