How Not to Expedite Negotiations in Syria

While Kerry and Putin get ready for their embrace, the slaughter continues unfettered; in any case, the struggle in Syria will not affect the course of the war against ISIS.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting in Moscow, July 14, 2016.
Vasily Maximov, AFP

For the fourth time this year, John Kerry, the American secretary of state, troubled himself to drop by Russia to chat with Vladimir Putin about the situation in Syria. Their meetings evoke mainly yawns, given that so far, they have racked up zero achievements — other than to strengthen Russia’s influence in the conflict that has lasted more than five years.

But now, observers promise, a new move is coming, and it will jump-start the moribund diplomatic process.

The number of dead, it seems, is only of interest to websites that engage in body counts, and one would have to keep track of the map showing the advance or retreat of the various fighting forces on a daily basis to see the subtle changes. Some months ago, the international community was up in arms over battles in Aleppo. Meanwhile, despite the truce, the city is being destroyed by bombardments by the Syrian army and Russian air force. About 350,000 people in Aleppo’s east are trapped, unreachable by the aid convoys. The council of rebel forces that runs the eastern part of the city advised citizens to stock up ahead of the “big battle” — if one happens at all. Or perhaps the city will remain under siege for many months to come.

Civil defense workers evacuate a body following reported airstrikes in the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Maysar in Aleppo, July 17, 2016.
Thaer Mohammed, AFP

According to reports in the West, the U.S. is now prepared to share intel with Russia and to coordinate the aerial attacks.

Not everyone in Washington supports anything which could reveal crucial information, such as the location of the headquarters of the American-supported rebels, to Russia. But the real goal is to eliminate one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition forces. After it turned out that Russia was abusing a previously achieved agreement with America on a cease-fire to attack rebel positions, saying they were outposts of the Nusra Front, Washington hopes that sharing information will enable it to demand that Moscow limit itself to attacking only “terrorists,” as Washington defines them. If consensus on this is achieved, it could bring the rebels back to the negotiating table.

The UN, which is responsible for implementing the agreement and managing the negotiations that are supposed to produce an interim Syrian government, has given up. Last week the UN envoy for the crisis in Syria, Staffan de Mistura, blamed the U.S. and Russia for the delay. Moscow was insulted and in diplomacy talk, rebuked de Mistura for failing to blame the rebels. De Mistura, however, was having none of it. He explained that there is no point in convening negotiations under these conditions, which include, among other things, Russia’s refusal to put pressure on Basher Assad and America's distinction between terrorists and legitimate rebel forces.

In de Mistura’s view, only ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are terror organizations that need to be vanquished, and any extra names on the list merely strengthen the position of the organizations that are against the negotiations. But de Mistura has no way to persuade the superpowers to reach an agreement – the only means at hand is to prevent the negotiating teams from meeting.

Herein lies the paradox of the diplomatic talks: To resume them, they need to be held up until the superpowers create the conditions for their resumption.

Anybody seeking parallels to the Israeli-Palestinian situation does so on his own responsibility, but like in Syria, here too, holding up negotiations is a means to eliminate preconditions; in the interim, the stronger party continues to lay down facts on the ground.

Meanwhile, we see how dissociated the struggle in Syria is from the war against ISIS. These are two separate wars, and the loss or victory in one will not affect the course of the other. The Islamic State may have lost more territory in Syria; it’s been taking blows from the air from both the U.S. and Russia, and the Kurds in northern Syria are also participating in the assault in a limited way. But none of this fighting has any influence over the siege of Aleppo, the assaults on the outskirts of Damascus, the fighting around Latakia or the conquest by ISIS and the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front of Yarmouk refugee camp.

This is not a battle of interdependent forces, in which a triumph by the rebels – or Assad’s army – would affect the war on ISIS, and vice versa. As long as the battle against the Islamic State is perceived as an international goal, warranting even the use of Western ground forces, the war between the rebels and the regime in Syria will remain to be perceived as an internal political problem. It is a serious crisis, to be sure, causing suffering and death, but nothing that would imperil the safety of the superpowers, as long as the mechanism that filters through the river of refugees from the Middle East to Europe continues to work.

Thousands of Syrian teachers, who until recently had been subject to the rules of the Islamic State, have experienced this disconnect between the struggles first-hand. As the militant organization retreated from certain areas, the Syrian regime ordered local teachers to be arrested and tried for collaboration and for deviating from the Syrian education program, though it is categorically clear that they had no choice. Resisting ISIS means death. But who cares about the teachers when John and Vladimir are embracing in Moscow?