Fighters at prayer in the Syrian village of Aziza. Photo: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images.
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Negotiating a path to peace: from Geneva to Aleppo, via Moscow

Syrian peace talks are promising, but much will need to be agreed (and a few Gordian Knots sliced) before there can be a lasting peace.

On the surface, little seems to have been achieved in talks on the three-year-old Syrian civil war, chaired by the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and held in Montreux and Geneva. But in diplomacy, appearances can be deceptive. In the first place, despite the deep antagonisms between the Syrian sides, no one walked out of the talks, an achievement in its own right. There were, it is true, no direct discussions between the parties, but neither did they spend weeks debating the size of the table as the Americans and Vietnamese did at the Paris peace talks of 1968. On the contrary, my sense is that a modest base has been laid for future negotiations.

One of the first UN missions on which I served was in the former Yugoslavia. Almost two decades have elapsed since that country’s disintegration, and it is often forgotten that the 1995 Dayton Accords that finally brought peace occurred in the fifth year of hostilities. When it comes to Syria, at best we are at 1994: there is little prospect for an immediate end to hostilities, or even a ceasefire. The end of winter in another month and the raw sectarianism raging through the Sunni and Shia worlds of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq may indeed lead to an intensification of fighting in the coming period.

Despite an apparently gloomy outlook, it is likely that limited agreements can be reached that will be to the benefit of both sides in future weeks – exchanges of prisoners, humanitarian access, and safe passage for women, children and the wounded. The UN is quite adept at negotiating these and nothing I heard from Geneva leads me to believe that agreements of this nature are not possible – indeed, probable. The ever cautious but vastly experienced Brahimi has hinted as much.

It was Brahimi who came to the UN’s rescue in Iraq in 2003, leading its mission in that country after the Baghdad bomb attack that killed another veteran UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello. And nearly 25 years ago it was Brahimi who choreographed the 1989 Taif Agreement that brought the 14-year Lebanese civil war to an end – an experience acutely relevant to the agonies of Syria at war.

To the surprise of many observers, the main opposition alliance – the Syrian National Council (SNC), led by Ahmad Jarba – held together much better than expected at the Montreux/Geneva conference. Within days of those talks concluding, a dramatic development took place which is likely to have a profound impact. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, invited Jarba to come to Moscow immediately for talks. In itself, this is hugely welcome, even if the cost to western diplomacy’s pride is considerable, and though it is deeply worrying to the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Last August, after the debacle of the parliamentary vote on British intervention and President Barack Obama’s decision not to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons, it was Russia that stepped forward in a bold move to extricate these weapons from an already savage war in Syria. The US had little choice but to accept a Russian diplomatic initiative.

Now, for a second time, Russian diplomacy has shown itself far more agile than that of the west by inviting Jarba to Moscow. The presence of the Syrian rebel leader sends strong messages to the west as well as Damascus. Russia has managed to maintain support for Assad but at the same time opened a “second front” through the invitation to Jarba. It will undoubtedly have caused shock waves in the Syrian capital. As well as demonstrating Russia’s diplomatic prowess, it shows that Moscow is now the only capital entertaining relations with both sides in the Syrian civil war.

Jarba arrived in Moscow on 4 February. His visit was well timed, coming just before the next round of talks, due in Geneva on 10 February. There is little doubt that the regime in Damascus will feel profound disquiet at the move, but it knows it will need the Russians’ protective cover at the UN Security Council.

Yet peace can come to Syria only with the inclusion, rather than exclusion, of all parties. The ghost of Banquo in Geneva was Iran, the principal external supporter of Syria and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Without Iran’s presence, the war could easily continue another three years. To prevent that happening, the west will have to accelerate its search, together with Russia and China, for a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran. Only then will the prospect of peace be real.

Michael C Williams is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House, London, and served as a UN diplomat in Cambodia, the Balkans and the Middle East

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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