The widening threat posed by the Islamic State is pushing the United States and Russia to try to launch a new round of peace talks for Syria.
But the likelihood of success is dim, international diplomats say, because Syrian President Bashar Assad remains convinced he’s in a stronger position than ever, while the rebel groups that the U.S. once influenced have largely been sidelined.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signaled the start of a new diplomatic push on Monday following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. Kerry told reporters that the two diplomats spoke at length about Syria and “about steps that might be . . . taken to try and see if there is a potential for common ground.”
Kerry went on to add that “one of the things that drives that interest . . . is the reality of what is happening to Syria as a result of the presence of Daash there and its use of Syria as a base for spreading its evil to other places.” Daash is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, which is also referred to as ISIS and ISIL.
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But whether the effort will be productive seemed uncertain. At a news conference in Saudi Arabia three days later, Kerry made clear that Western hopes for a transfer of political power in Syria would require “a combination of diplomacy and pressure.”
“Military pressure particularly may be necessary, given President Assad’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously,” Kerry said. “And what we must do is strengthen the capacity for this political solution.”
Kerry didn’t say which armed group is expected to apply the “military pressure.” The moderate rebels that the U.S. has most recently supported have been largely routed from northern Syria in recent months by al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, while a U.S. program to train Syrians to fight is aimed at countering the Islamic State, not Assad, American officials have said. The training program has yet to get underway.
The last round of peace talks sponsored by the U.S. and Russia and chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, then the U.N. special envoy for Syria, imploded in February 2014 in Geneva in part because the Assad government argued that combating terrorism should be the top priority, while the opposition wanted to focus on a transitional government that would exclude Assad.
Diplomats say, however, that the rise of the Islamic State, which seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, four months after the Geneva talks collapsed, has changed the political dynamics on the ground. Whether that’s enough to drive some sort of agreement between Assad and his non-Islamist foes is unclear, however.
Last week, opposition groups in Aleppo rejected what many diplomats believe is the best hope for starting a meaningful peace process in Syria, a U.N. proposal that would freeze fighting in Aleppo, where the city is divided between government and rebel areas.
The U.N.’s current special envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, had traveled to Syria to press for the freeze, under which the various armed groups would stop targeting one another’s areas with heavy artillery and aerial bombings for a six-week period. That lull would allow humanitarian supplies in and let people who want to leave out.
A rebel organization called the Aleppo Revolutionary Commission said such a deal, however, would undercut a communique issued nearly three years ago and known as Geneva I. That communique, which both the United States and Russia agreed to, called for the establishment of a transitional government, which the opposition has said could not include Assad.
The Geneva II talks that fell apart last year were based on the first Geneva communique.
A senior Russian diplomat told McClatchy that his country is looking forward to Kerry coming up with some plausible proposals. In the meantime, Moscow has scheduled a meeting between government and opposition figures for April.
In a presentation Thursday at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, more commonly known as Chatham House, de Mistura warned that if there is no political solution in Syria, the Islamic State “will continue to take advantage.”
He predicted that an Islamic State victory in Aleppo “would be a humanitarian catastrophe,” sending as many as 500,000 refugees toward Turkey.
But with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the primary civilian rebel group, adamant that the process must end with Assad gone, Assad unwilling to step aside, and al Qaida and the Islamic State the dominant military actors in much of the country, a diplomatic solution seems distant.
“There are many fingers in this dispute,” a veteran U.N. diplomat told McClatchy, asking that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the topic. “It’s complicated.”
Meanwhile, another diplomat from the region wondered whether the battle against the Islamic State must be carried to other countries such as Libya, where the Islamic State claimed to have executed 21 Egyptian Christians last month.
“We can’t fight them in Syria and Iraq and not in Libya,” a diplomat from an Arab country told McClatchy, asking not to be named, like the others, because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.