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.

Fighters at prayer in the Syrian village of Aziza. Photo: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images.

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