UN peace conference for Syria: too late

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura
Six years into the devastating conflict in Syria, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura proposes a peace conference with no preconditions (source: dpa)

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, the United Nations has proven unable to help resolve it. The organization did, of course, nominate peace negotiators and called for peace conferences. GIS warned right from the beginning that these conferences were bound to fail, as they were handicapped by preconditions. One such precondition was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go and, implicitly, that he and most members of his government would face trials before an international court. Obviously, the government in Damascus could not come to the table under such conditions. Still, the United States and President Barack Obama personally, the European powers and Saudi Arabia all insisted on this precondition. Moreover, these countries gave support to various Syrian rebel groups which also fought among themselves.

During 2014, Daesh (a terror organization also known as Islamic State or ISIS) took advantage of the chaos to establish a state, first in Syria and then in the northern part of Iraq invaded by its fighters. A new enemy for the West was able to emerge, yet the precondition of excluding Damascus from efforts to resolve the conflict remained – even though Syrian government troops were fighting ISIS.

The civil war in Syria has also turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Russia’s military support for President Assad changed the situation. Daesh is close to losing its territory (it will continue as a terror group) and Damascus can be ignored no longer. An estimated 400,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011, more than 5 million Syrians have fled the country, 6.3 million are displaced internally. Much of Syria has been reduced to rubble. U.N. Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura, whose new, much higher estimates of the war’s toll are quoted here, now calls for a conference that would include the Syrian government. But the fragmented rebel groups are against it.

So, finally the UN and the main Western powers have awoken to the obvious fact that peace summits under preconditions cannot work. The internal problem is now with the rebels, who are not necessarily interested in solutions, as their leaders would lose power, and some are at risk of going to trial for war crimes. Another problem is that increased tensions in the region are making the situation even more complex.

Hezbollah factor

A good opportunity to work out a solution by federalizing Syria was lost three years ago, because of the preconditions. Now Israel and Turkey are entering the fray. Turkey’s concern is the recently strengthened position of radical Kurds, who live near its border in northern Syria.

Syrian government forces are now in control of all southern Syria. Damascus owes a debt of gratitude for this turn of events to Hezbollah, a radical anti-Israeli group supported by Iran that has a stronghold in southern Lebanon. From there, it is able to threaten Israel in its immediate neighborhood. President Assad will have to pay his debt to Hezbollah by facilitating Iran’s efforts to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, in response, is practically certain to take action in Lebanon to prevent it. All this means that, unfortunately, the Syrian war is now likely to spill over into that country.

Logically, in the context of the Middle East, the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel have become aligned in recent years. Their common concern about Hezbollah also explains why Saudi Arabia has exerted so much pressure on Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the entire Lebanese government to take a harder stand against Hezbollah.

On December 2, Israel underscored its determination to block the flow of arms to that group launching a missile strike against a military base in southern Lebanon.

A summit without preconditions would likely have worked some years ago. Today, it looks like the civil war in Syria, which has also turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is with us to stay, and will further destabilize the entire region. It may end only with the participants’ total exhaustion.

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