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Vienna Conference on Syria

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • November 03, 2015

    The conference at Vienna’s magnificent Hotel Imperial on October 30, bringing together 17 states (China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and lasting almost eight hours, ended with a nine-point joint communiqué. The United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) were also represented at the conference. This is the third such attempt to hold talks to find a way to bring to an end Syria’s seemingly endless agony. This one is a more serious and sensible attempt than the previous ones.

    The previous two attempts, Geneva 1 (June 2012) and Geneva 2 (February 2014), can be correctly characterised as insincere and cynical theatre, tantamount to a charade, for four reasons. First, Iran, an important stakeholder, willing and able to frustrate any search for a political solution that excludes it, was not invited. Second, with the US-supported rebels given undue weightage, not all the opposition parties in Syria were invited. Third, the principal initiators, the US and Russia, were not really seeking a solution. They were more intent on scoring points over each other. Fourth, by inviting the warring Syrian parties, including the Bashar al-Assad regime, their external supporters found it difficult to talk frankly among themselves. The exclusion of Syria this time in Vienna is a wise step.

    The highlights of the communiqué are:

    1. Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.
    2. State institutions will remain intact.
    3. It is imperative to promote all efforts to end the war.
    4. The Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, or agreed to by the participants, must be defeated.
    5. The UN is invited to convene a conference of representatives of the Syrian Government and the Opposition to start a political process leading to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance followed by a new constitution, and an election under the UN supervision.
    6. In parallel with the political process, the participants along with UN will explore modalities for a nationwide ceasefire to be effective on a date to be decided depending on the progress of the political process.
    7. The participants will work to narrow down their differences in the coming days and meet again within two weeks.

    A few comments are in order. Because crafty diplomats have succeeded in finding words for a joint communiqué, it does not necessarily follow that there has been sufficient give and take necessary for an agreement or that the participants are serious or sincere in pursuing the stated objectives. The reference to Syria’s independence and territorial integrity is not to be taken seriously as some of the participants have been working hard to dismember Syria and there is no change in their position.

    A principal bone of contention as reported was about Assad’s position. It is the US, Saudi Arabia, and their allies who have given in. Till now, they have been repeating non-stop that Assad is not part of the solution and that the political process cannot start without his leaving office. After the Russian military intervention, Assad’s position, from a military point of view at least, has improved. The changed US position is that Assad has to go, but not on day one the political process starts. The US has wisely changed its position.

    It might be useful to reflect on Assad’s position for a moment. It is rather naïve to say that if Assad steps down Syria will rapidly see the end of the civil wars. Around August 2011, Saudi Arabian intelligence had wrongly assessed that Assad is fast losing ground and will fall if statements are made in Washington and Riyadh calling for his exit. It is good that they have started to realise that they had made a mistake, but they have not yet thought through the matter to its logical conclusion. It is wrong to make so much fuss about Assad’s position.

    The participants at the conference were not willing to put the ceasefire as an immediate goal. It should be noted that the US announced its plans to send Special Forces to Syria the day the conference started. The same day, Assad’s army attacked a rebel-held suburb of Damascus reportedly killing 45 and wounding many more. Further, the Saudi decision to send more and better weapons to rebels supported by it remains unchanged. All told, it is difficult to say that there is any real progress towards a ceasefire thanks to the conference.

    The drafting of point 4 must have been tricky. Turkey has been bombing the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) for weeks. The US worked recently with YPG to free about 70 men held by the IS. It is also sending Special Forces to the Kurdish area controlled by YPG. Though YPG is not a terrorist group in the eyes of the UN Security Council, it is allied to PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a terrorist group as per the Council. The discord between the US and Turkey on this might prove rather difficult to resolve, but it is reasonably clear that Turkey cannot defy the US beyond a point. Now that President Recep Erdogan’s party has won the general election, he might not see the political need to bomb YPG, at least for a while.

    The reference to a “nation-wide ceasefire” in point 6 is intriguing. Is it implied that at some point of time in the future the IS would have fallen, or, alternatively, it will take part in a ceasefire negotiation after it gets ‘degraded’ enough?

    It may be noted that at the U-shaped conference table the Saudi Foreign Minister was seated as far away as possible from his Iranian counterpart. The distance did not prevent unpleasant exchanges between the two. Prior to the conference, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had bluntly said that by inviting Iran to Vienna Saudi Arabia and its partners wanted to “test” Iran’s intentions. It was only after a visit to Riyadh by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and a phone call from President Barack Obama to King Salman that Riyadh reluctantly agreed to Iran’s participation. In short, it was far from a gathering of powers with common goals keen to work together to find solutions. The question is whether the participants will succeed in narrowing their differences over time.

    Another question is how a credible election can be held. Will Assad agree to intrusive UN supervision that might come in the way of his past practice of rigging? What about the logistics required reaching out to displaced voters? An election can be held only if certain conditions are fulfilled. Where are the political parties? How can a new constitution be written? Who will write it? As of now, the idea of writing a constitution and holding an election looks like a mirage.

    Yet another important question is what about the IS? It will not be invited to be part of the political process. Nor is it likely to agree to be part of the process even if invited. Is it the intention of some of the participants, if not all, to reconcile Assad and all the non-IS rebels and thereafter put together a grand coalition against the IS? How long will it take to put together such a coalition assuming that an attempt will be made?

    Incidentally, the Vienna Conference was held the day Russia’s bombing campaign completed one month, killing a total of 270 rebels (supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and others), 135 IS rebels, and 185 civilians. In contrast, the US-led airstrikes in the last one year have killed 3,649 out of which 3,276 are IS rebels. The above figures are from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One does not know how reliable the figures are, but the Observatory is the only one engaged in counting the grim toll.

    The shift in the US policy is worth noting. For Obama, it was a painful decision to send Special Forces, “less than fifty”, to Syria. Their mission is to “help coordinate local ground forces and coalition efforts”. The purpose is to strengthen YPG against the IS. In other words, the Special Forces will not assist forces fighting Assad’s regime. Obama has found it difficult to answer cogently his critics at home who fault him with a weak and incoherent policy on Syria. The White House has indicated that the small number of Special Forces might be raised later. Obama has already come under criticism for doing too little, too late.

    Russia has raised concerns about a ‘proxy war’ and urged closer consultations with the US to take care of deconfliction. The US might agree. Looking ahead, if there is no settlement before the US presidential election due in a year’s time, Obama’s successor might step up the military involvement taking the US closer to a ‘proxy war’ with Russia.

    In conclusion, the Vienna Conference could lead over time to a ceasefire between Assad and the non-IS rebels, but it is too soon to say that it will. The key powers adding fuel to the fire of the multiple civil wars raging in Syria have yet to reach the conclusion that it is in their interest to stop doing that. Vienna was less of a charade than its two pre-incarnations of Geneva 1 and 2. It was a mix between a charade and a serious conference. However, there is real risk of its turning into a charade. The conference might not have been held but for the Russian bombing campaign and the inundation of Europe by refugees. The US policy towards Syria is slowly changing and it is difficult to say whether it will be dragged deeper into the quagmire that Syria is. What is painfully clear is that we are going to witness more killing, more refugees, and more talking.

    For the disappointed observer, it is difficult not to recall the Roman poet Ovid’s lines penned twenty centuries ago:

    Video meliora, proboque; deteriora sequor

    (I see better things and approve; I follow the worse)

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.