As The Syrian Peace Talks Are Approaching

Originally published on December 13, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

On November 25, the UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon announced that peace talks would be held between the Syrian government and the opposition forces on January 22, 2014 in Geneva. This will be the first time since the beginning of the Syrian civil war for the two sides to engage in diplomacy. As the peace talks are pending, let’s take a look at what’s happening on the ground and what obstacles these talks will have to overcome. 

Deteriorating Refugee Crisis And the War’s Youngest Victims

Not to understate the tragedy of people getting killed on a daily basis, there is also the Syrian refugee situation quickly turning into a humanitarian crisis. According to a recent report by the UN Population Fund, the refugee camps in Jordan alone hold over 550,000 refugees, camps in Lebanon have over 820,000 people, and 600,000 refugees are currently in Turkey. Both refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) are facing difficulties they could probably never imagine. As winter is coming – which can be rather cold in the Middle East – tents that are barely adequate to house people in milder climates will have to serve them when temperatures drop. Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is awaiting caravans donated by the Gulf states, yet they will by no means be enough to house all 24,000 families. 

The horrors of the Syrian civil war did not exclude its youngest citizens. A report published by the Oxford Research Group this November states that out of 113,000 killed in the war thus far we find 11,000 children under 18 years old. Close to 400 children were killed by snipers while 764 were killed on the spot. The report adds that 112 children, including toddlers, were tortured. Not surprisingly, these horrors result in psychological traumas as well as actual psychological disorders and physiological difficulties. It’s hard to say what the new generation of post-war Syrians will look like, yet it’s clear that it will be heavily scarred by traumas if no adequate psychological help is provided. 

Peace Talks in January

Any assessment of how successful the peace talks planned in January might be must include several considerations. The first one, and surely a crucial one,  is who will sit at the negotiating table. The Syrian National Coalition leaders, like Ahmad Jarba, are supposed to be occupying a chair there. This raises a question: how will that be treated by those forces who are also fighting the Syrian regime yet whose ideology does not match the one of the coalition’s?  That is, what kind of a diplomatic solution would be acceptable – if there is any – for such groups like Al Nusra, associated with Al Qaeda and fighting not for a secular Syria but for a Sharia state? The fact that the Syrian opposition will be represented by one group might anger the rest. That relates to the very fact that the Syrian opposition is not a monolithic group, albeit having the same goal – to overthrow Assad. 

Another chair by the negotiating table is supposed to be occupied by the Syrian government itself, which is not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the groups that comprises the divided Syrian opposition, Free Syrian Army, has stated that it won’t be coming to the peace talks in Geneva if Assad is there. The already-mentioned Ahmad Jarba has also expressed his doubts about the future peace talks: “There is no way that the individual responsible for the destruction of the country can be responsible for building the country.” Time will tell if the opposition forces will attend the talks if Assad is there, not considering stepping down as an option. 

Depending on the very talking points of the meeting, there’s also a question of how any agreement, if reached, will be accepted by the Syrian population. If the opposition forces and, hence, any agreement reached, don’t really represent a significant part of the Syrian people, the terms of this future treaty and what it means to other opposition groups might seem unfair, or, a worst case scenario, might even intensify the fighting on the ground. It’s also unclear if these talks will include any points regarding the Kurdish situation, the biggest ethnic minority in Syria, and how any agreement will be accepted by this group. Finally, even if something close to a political compromise is found – a coalition government, transition to more democratic processes, etc – it’s hard to guarantee that it will be accepted by the majority of the country’s residents, who, let’s not forget, are deeply divided. One of the ways to measure the health of a democratic regime is to see how the losers of a democratic process take that loss. That happens to be more difficult in less democracit and post-conflict societies. Each side might see a political compromise as truly  compromising its core values (or, simply put, as a loss), which would annul any achievements that this compromise would promise. 

In other words, the list of potential issues is clear months before the peace talks, and can potentially increase. Who will see in Geneva, will one side see the other one as truly representative of a part of the Syrian people, and will the Syrian people see those groups in the same way? Both the international community and the political factions in Syria are facing a Sysyphus-like task: to glue together a society that is deeply divided and led by diverging ideologies. It’s not very likely that things will improve in any significant way before the peace talks take place. We can only hope that things don’t change so much that the relevant groups decide to cancel. 

Before the Talks

Despite the fact that Syria has stopped its programme of weapons of mass destruction, which is a big achievement itself, the fighting continues and the number of casualties as well displaced people continues to grow. We’d like to hope that diplomacy will be the answer to the Syrian civil war because a different answer is simply difficult to imagine. 

While diplomacy is placed on hold, there are still measures that the international community can take to help the Syrian people. That is first of all humanitarian aid for its displaced population who are witnessing dropping temperatures with anxiety and even more distress. The media is daily showing us images of kids playing in the increasingly cold mud, with endless tent cities in the background. Although improving the living conditions in refugee camps will not end the war itself, it is nevertheless extremely important to millions of Syrians. The world can do more than await the peace talks; it can help here and now.  

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