The Guardian view on Syria: Putin tests the west

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View/Environment - Edi­to­rial

One les­son of his­tory is that peace plans are forged by the vic­tors. Al­most ex­actly a year af­ter the fall of Aleppo, the last ur­ban strong­hold of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, peace-mak­ing diplo­macy is now mak­ing a ten­ta­tive come­back. Talks, spon­sored by the United Na­tions, are ex­pected in Geneva this week. That is to be wel­comed, even though hopes of a break­through are slim. Since 2012, numer­ous rounds of ne­go­ti­a­tions have come and gone, all es­sen­tially fruit­less. All too of­ten it was Rus­sian ve­toes that ham­pered ef­fec­tive UN ac­tion, in­clud­ing on ac­count­abil­ity for chem­i­cal weapon use.

Syria’s op­po­si­tion groups have re­or­gan­ised their ne­go­ti­at­ing team, pres­sured by the fact that they are in the weaker po­si­tion. The Syr­ian regime, which first said it would boy­cott talks if the op­po­si­tion in­sisted on Bashar al-As­sad’s re­moval, has said it will send a del­e­ga­tion on Wednesday. The UN en­voy, Staffan de Mis­tura, says his job is to be an in­cor­ri­gi­ble op­ti­mist. But it will take more than op­ti­mism to ad­dress Syria’s mul­ti­fac­eted war, to end the suf­fer­ing, to re­pair a bro­ken coun­try and to be­gin to seek jus­tice for its mil­lions of vic­tims.

Fight­ing is far from over. In re­cent days, airstrikes against the rebel-held east­ern Ghouta district near Da­m­as­cus have killed dozens. The As­sad regime is in­tent on re­con­quer­ing ev­ery hectare of ter­ri­tory it lost af­ter the 2011 pop­u­lar up­ris­ing which called for demo­cratic re­form, and which the dic­ta­tor re­sponded to with mas­sive use of force. Last month, the US-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion against Is­lamic State took over Raqqa, the “cap­i­tal” of the self­pro­claimed “caliphate”, af­ter a cam­paign of in­tense bom­bard­ment. But bat­tles con­tinue in Syria’s east­ern desert, close to the Iraqi bor­der. Ri­val pro-Ira­nian and pro-US forces com­pete for strate­gic land­marks. Syria’s endgame may or may not be ap­proach­ing.

What is clear is that Rus­sia has been call­ing most of the shots. Vladimir Putin’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion – launched in 2015 to save As­sad, in a joint ef­fort with Iran – has given him the up­per hand. He has cap­i­talised on US mis­cal­cu­la­tion and the Euro­pean re­luc­tance to get more deeply in­volved. Be­yond Don­ald Trump’s threats against Iran, US poli­cies re­main murky – fo­cused on lit­tle more than anti-ter­ror­ism. Last week, Mr Putin hosted talks in Sochi with the lead­ers of Iran and Turkey. And he ap­peared be­fore the cam­eras with Mr As­sad. Ear­lier this year Rus­sia or­gan­ised talks with Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups in As­tana, Kaza­khstan. It is a sign of a chang­ing global land­scape that at ev­ery step, both the UN and west­ern pow­ers were side­lined.

What has now changed? Af­ter years when Moscow ei­ther shunned or im­peded any UN in­volve­ment, it is likely that Mr Putin now wants UN back­ing in or­der to ce­ment its gains. Rus­sia has a cyn­i­cal in­ter­est in seek­ing UN val­i­da­tion for its plans. Continuous war­fare drains re­sources. Re­build­ing Syria will re­quire a level of fi­nances that Rus­sia alone can­not se­cure. Re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran are less clearcut than their lead­ers would like to project. The Kur­dish is­sue re­mains highly con­tentious. Against that back­drop, west­ern coun­tries, in­clud­ing the UK, be­lieve they can still have some lever­age on the out­come. It is a nar­row and dif­fi­cult path. No one should be fooled that prom­ises of, say, “free elec­tions”, cast as part of a Rus­sian-dom­i­nated plan, would be any­thing but win­dow dress­ing.

The six-year-old war has turned Syria into a waste­land. The words of the Ro­man his­to­rian Tac­i­tus about “creat­ing a desert and call­ing it peace” come to mind. An end to the ter­ri­ble litany of airstrikes, star­va­tion sieges and tor­ture cham­bers can­not come a day too soon. But to talk of “vic­tory”, as Mr As­sad does, de­fies all sense of de­cency. There can be no vic­tors in this war. Not af­ter an es­ti­mated half a mil­lion deaths, with mil­lions more dis­placed. Sus­tain­able peace will only come when all Syr­i­ans have the chance to freely choose by whom and how their coun­try is gov­erned. That – and not pic­tures of sum­mitry – should be the mea­sure by which diplo­macy is ul­ti­mately judged.

Vladimir Putin’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion – launched in 2015 to save As­sad, in a joint ef­fort with Iran – has given him the up­per hand. Pho­to­graph: TASS / Bar­croft Images

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