As news arrives of an interim deal between the West and Iran over that country’s controversial nuclear program, it raises the possibility of hope for resolving another long-running regional stalemate. Interest in Syria’s civil war has died down somewhat since the Obama administration backed away from threatened military strikes this autumn, yet the fighting drags on with no sign that talks in Geneva this January will end in a ceasefire agreement. Outsiders remain deadlocked over the issue, with each country pursuing its own agenda and no sign that any will prevail over the others soon.
Indeed, part of the problem entrenching the Syrian conflict is how it has drawn in so many outside actors. The most comprehensive solution to the crisis is therefore also the one least likely to be implemented by a bickering international community. That is a general agreement for a cessation of war-making material to both sides by their foreign backers, combined with an economic embargo to stop funds for military purposes getting out and smuggled arms getting in. Properly enforced by neighbouring states, this could slash the resources available to either side to keep their fighters armed, fed and paid, whilst in theory allowing in aid for civilians in need. Undermining Syria’s war economy would hurt the ability of both the rebels and the regime to continue the struggle and help push them towards the negotiating tables at Geneva. After so much bloodshed, transitions out of civil wars are never easy, but the internal strains can be considerably reduced if the international environment is right and outside states push for a peace settlement.
Sadly that is precisely the opposite policy of what outside actors have been doing so far. The tragedy for Syrians is their conflict has come to be perceived as inseparable from other regional power struggles in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. However, as the recent interim breakthroughs over Iran’s nuclear program have shown, treating Syria’s civil war as part of an interlinked regional struggle is not the way to achieve momentum in peace talks. By focusing on Iran’s nuclear program as a single issue separate to Tehran’s behaviour in other spheres international progress towards an agreement has been made. Similarly in the Syrian conflict Russia’s diplomatic credibility has been raised by the successful dismantling of government chemical weapons under international supervision, though this did not depose the regime or end the war.
Unless Syria’s foreign backers can take some shared responsibility and start to come to an international agreement, the two sides in its civil war will have no incentive to come to terms. A good place to start would be for the West to recognise the authority of the Russian and Iranian governments to speak up for the national interests of their countries in Syria. Complaining about Russian or Iranian protection of the Assad regime will not change that fact. Nor will it alter the situation inside Syria, where after two and a half years of fighting, neither side has proved quite strong enough to overcome the other. What is needed in January is a Syrian version of the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon. It should cover political reform, the ending of the civil war and the disarmament of all state and non-state militias. Without this Syria’s conflict will continue to destabilise Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and could plausibly escalate into a regional war by drawing in these outside states. The fear of that alone should be prompting policy-makers in Iran, Europe, America and Russia to think hard about their next move.