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Syria Is Broken and These Peace Talks Won’t Put It Together Again

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Posted on Jan 20, 2014

By Reese Erlich

  With Syria’s civil war in its third year, more than 2 million Syrians have fled their country. About 100,000 live in this camp near the border in Jordan. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

DAMASCUS—The international Syria peace talks begin Wednesday amid turmoil and confusion.

In an unexpected move Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had asked Iran to join the talks in Montreux, Switzerland. But on Monday, the U.N. withdrew its invitation. Ban said Iran had not agreed that Syria should be ruled by a transitional government.

Iran is a key supporter of the Syrian regime and would be an important participant in any eventual peace settlement. But the U.S. objects to Iranian involvement because of its support for Bashar Assad.

The last-minute turmoil is just one more indication that the brutal Syrian civil war seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

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Months ago, the U.S. had hoped to bring international pressure on Assad to step down. But the Syrian regime, along with Russia and Iran, have rejected that plan.

Ultra-right-wing Islamist rebels, such as al-Nusra, have refused to participate in the Swiss conference at all. At Washington’s insistence, the U.S.-backed rebel group, the Syrian National Coalition, agreed to attend only three days ago.

Even if the conference participants reach an agreement, there is little chance a peace plan could be carried out inside Syria, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“The chances of a cease-fire being upheld are slight due to the number of militias on the ground—many of which have rejected the Geneva process altogether,” he said.

Landis expressed some optimism about the conference, however. Damascus proposed a cease-fire for the war-torn city of Aleppo. And it’s possible Washington and Moscow could “produce a modicum of international consensus on a political solution—or at the very least—agreement that a complete military solution is unlikely.”

In March, Syria’s Arab Spring uprising will reach its third anniversary, with more than 100,000 dead and 5 million displaced. The original peaceful protests have morphed into a civil war—splitting the country along class, religious and ethnic lines. Foreign powers have intensified the conflict by arming Assad and the rebels.

The Obama administration claims to support democracy in Syria and arm only “moderate” fighters. But the definition of moderate shifted as the U.S. struggled to find pliable rebel groups that could advance U.S. economic, political and military interests.

“For the United States, the question is increasingly not linked to the ideologies of the rebel groups, but to their military effectiveness,” said Majid Rafizadeh, a Syria expert and scholar at Harvard University.

The administration hasn’t lacked a Syria policy, as some critics charge. Its policy just hasn’t worked.

The U.S. cobbled together a group of exiles, armed some militia and even found a former Syrian army officer, Salim Idris, to be the titular head of the operation. But the U.S.-backed forces have steadily lost ground to both the Syrian army and extremist militias.

A turning point came in August 2013 when the administration announced plans to bomb Syria. Popular opinion at home and abroad blocked the effort. The U.S. government shut down and continuous budget crises showed that the American empire doesn’t have the money or the political stomach for more, prolonged Middle East warfare.

Syrian officials say Washington may now be willing to reach a negotiated settlement. “The U.S. wants to find an exit to legitimize itself,” Syrian Minister of Justice Najm al-Ahmad (pictured) said in an interview.

Photo by Reese Erlich.

Civil society activists, the leaders of the initial phase in the 2011 uprising, are caught in a squeeze between the Syrian regime, extremist rebels and outside powers.

Damascus resident Leen, who asked that only her first name be used for security reasons, spends much of her time dodging Syrian intelligence and local thugs. When first interviewed two years ago, she was a leading civil society activist, fighting for a secular, parliamentary system in Syria.


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