The second round of talks has the potential to create a viable political solution to end the Syrian conflict.
The United States has intensified its air campaign over Syria, ahead of the second round of international talks in Vienna. Syria has been consumed by turmoil for nearly five years, with a death toll close to a quarter of a million people. The conflict has already displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, sparking a global refugee crisis. To top it off, the Islamic State (IS) has expanded its territory inside the country, and it has gone from a thorn in the international community’s side to the most egregious terrorist organization in the world. The upcoming Vienna talks on November 14, however, could change all that.
The inclusion of Iran in the discussions is integral for developing a political solution. Despite speculation over whether the Islamic Republic can play a serious role in the future of Syria due to its expansive support for the Assad regime, Tehran is unlikely to be an obstacle. The recent nuclear deal proves that the Iranians have the will and ability to negotiate.
Iran has already conceded that a future Syrian government will not include President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran does, however, maintain that Assad should play a role in the transition process. The US and other Western powers have warmed up to this idea, understanding that a complete overhaul of the Assad regime could create a power vacuum that radical groups, including the Islamic State, could fill.
After supplying the Syrian regime with military equipment, its own troops and unmeasurable amounts of other aid, the conflict has cost Iran’s already ailing economy billions of dollars. Bolstering the Assad regime has also cost the Iranians their reputation.
Although Iran aspires to be the regional hegemon of the Middle East, it has lost immense legitimacy from its Sunni Arab counterparts. Working with the international community to further a political solution for Syria will increase other states’ faith in Iran.
As one of Assad’s closest allies, Tehran has the power to pressure his regime into agreeing to a political solution with little resistance—and without pulling Syria into another conflict. As long as other world powers permit Iran to play a strong role in shaping the future of Syria, the political transition can be smoother than anticipated. Indeed, Iran must be treated as a partner, and not a privileged guest so that the international community can utilize Tehran’s influence over the Syrian regime. Without the support of his greatest ally, Assad will have no choice but to abide by a political solution in order to guarantee his own personal survival.
While it is unlikely that Tehran will hinder the discussions for its own interest, many are skeptical over whether the Vienna talks can actually produce a breakthrough in the conflict. Based off the first round of talks that took place on October 30, there is definite potential that they could be a major turning point in the Syrian conflict. For one, the first round has already laid the groundwork for the creation of a consociational power-sharing government.
One political solution being discussed in Vienna is using a power-sharing government between the majority Sunni population, Alawites and other minority groups. This consociational framework is typically used in nations emerging from civil wars in order to secure peace. Arend Lijphart, widely deemed as the father of consociationalism, argues that power-sharing governments help foster cooperation among political elites in societies divided by ethnic or religious lines.
At the crux of a successful power-sharing government is a grand coalition that includes multiple political parties in the cabinet; a mutual veto in which all groups have the ability to reject a policy change; proportional representation that reflects the population in parliament; and, lastly, segmental autonomy that grants minority groups with some power to govern themselves in their own territories. Collectively, these mechanisms aim to bridge the ethnic and religious divides among political elites.
A power-sharing arrangement in Syria can be an effective temporary solution for building a more stable and united country, as long as the international community ensures that the arrangement is fair and are themselves committed to helping uphold it. It is the only viable solution. A consociational model will allow power to be transferred to the majority (Sunnis), while also protecting the minority (the Alawites, among others). Many Alawites may actually begin defecting from the Assad regime once they realize their fate is no longer tied to that of Assad, because they would not be persecuted under a new power-sharing system.
As long as a power-sharing government is included in a political solution, the renewed Vienna talks can offer hope for the Syrian people.
Although there are reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming Vienna talks, there are still major hurdles to overcome. Negotiations can be a lengthy process, as demonstrated by the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran. Indeed, how many more Syrians will die until a deal is not only reached, but implemented is anyone’s guess. However, it is important to also question how many more Syrians will die without a foreseeable end to the conflict in the absence of a political solution as well.
Syria has been consumed by turmoil for nearly five years, with a death toll close to a quarter of a million people. The conflict has already displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, sparking a global refugee crisis.
As the talks ensue, the US-led coalition must continue to amplify its military campaign against terrorist groups like IS, in order to prevent a radical Islamist organization from hijacking the political transition. The Islamic State controls a sizable chunk of northern Syria and will be extremely difficult to destroy. However, the terrorist organization can be seriously weakened if the US-led coalition successfully establishes a no-fly zone and works with Russia to coordinate airstrikes against IS targets. The coalition will need to continue to train and supply the new rebel alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, because a parallel ground campaign is essential in the war against IS. Stripping territory from the Islamic State will greatly weaken the caliphate, and also its appeal for others to join the group.
Perhaps the greatest perceived shortcoming to the Vienna talks is the absence of representatives from the Syrian government and opposition. After all, number eight of the nine-point plan, which was developed in the first round of talks, stipulates that “the political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.” It is imperative that the government and opposition are brought to the negotiating table. It is doubtful that Assad, especially at the behest of Iran, will put up much resistance for joining the talks. The participants of the talks have already largely agreed that he will play a role in Syria’s transition process. If the US boosts its armament of Syrian rebels, which it will need to do in order to defeat IS, then it can use it as leverage to also force them to open dialogue.
As we have learned from the past in the Middle East, solutions that are imposed on states without the consent of those involved rarely tend to be successful. Bringing these groups to Vienna for further rounds of talks, if there are any, needs to be a priority for the international community.
While it is unfortunate that it took the international community this long to convene in order to develop palpable solutions, it is better late than never. The inclusion of Iran as well as discussion over a power-sharing government are crucial steps forward. As long as those present in Vienna can commit to defeating the Islamic State while also promoting a political solution, the renewed talks will offer hope for an end to the Syrian conflict, which is long overdue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.