Guest Post by Tamer Mahboub 

Since the beginning of diplomatic endeavors regarding the political settlement trajectory of the ongoing conflict in Syria through convening the first round of talks ‘Geneva-1’ in 2012, negotiations are facing some obstacles with a clear gap in the statements issued after the talks. The controversy between the two major international powers, the United States and Russia, and their allies led to the lack of agreement on the fate of the Syrian President Al-Assad — until now.

Parties agreed to hold Vienna Conference in November 2015 which included the 2254 Resolution concerning drawing a roadmap for the peace process in Syria. Although there was a sign of hope to reach tangible consequences, the international and regional interests did not match, and thus the settlement process became frozen.

The two main parties to the crisis are the Syrian Government and the opposition groups that pose one of the obstacles to the political settlement trajectory through their refusal to make some concessions and their unwillingness to sit at the table for serious negotiations. The eight Geneva talks did not reach conclusions, instead resulted in a mixed picture regarding the future of the peace process in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, maintained that “The objectives of the process of negotiation between the parties and the opposition did not materialize”.

This article will discuss the hurdles that pose a stumbling block in the way of a diplomatic solution and hinder the endeavors toward ending the tragic war in the state of Syria.

The Fate of Assad

There is a clear diverge among the five major international and regional powers concerned on determining the future of the Syrian regime.

Since Geneva-1, the Syrian regime is still rejecting both the departure of Al-Assad and the terms of the international settlement, especially the establishment of an inclusive transitional authority with full executive powers. The Russian intervention in Syria aims mainly to protect the Syrian regime and to preserve Syria from falling. This appears more clearly in the progress in the Latakia countryside and the areas of Mount Turkoman that were completely retrieved from the opposition groups. In addition, Russia launched a large-scale military operation against extremist groups in Aleppo as a means to alter the balance of power in a coordination with Turkey, which explains the Turkish military intervention in northern Syria, known as “Euphrates Shield”.

Conversely, the opposition groups believe that the progress made by the regime is just a slight progress, and they did not lose effective strategic cities until now. During the expanded conferences hosted by Saudi Arabia for the opposition groups before the UN peace talks set for Geneva to discuss the solution for the peace process, the key opposition groups stated that Al-Assad should play no role and his departure is a must to achieve fair negotiation.

The Russian-Saudi Dispute

The second hurdle to the political settlement has to do with the sharp diverge between coalitions, especially Russia and Saudi Arabia. After the Geneva-2, Russia has become the key player in the Syrian crisis. It started in 2015 by hosting Moscow negotiations between the opposition representatives and their counterparts from the current regime. Russia’s military and political success was critical to control the crisis internationally. In October 2015, Vienna talks was launched between the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, KSA, and Turkey. Iran joined the negotiations later on and once again there was no consensus on the fate of Assad’s regime. The Security Council issued the resolution (2254) to endorse a road map for the peace process in Syria and outlined a timetable to establish a transitional authority as well as a nationwide ceasefire.

Russia has not been able to pull the carpet out of the National Coalition, which is the biggest representative of the opposition. Saudi Arabia formed the supreme negotiating body, which included the majority of the political and military opposition. This coincided with the inability of Russia to include the movement of ‘Ahrar al-Cham’ and the ‘Army of Islam’ within the terrorist organizations due to the rejection of Turkey and KSA, which would give Moscow legitimacy to get rid of the anti-regime militarist factions and weaken the opposition groups.

The Russian-Saudi dispute was also reflected in the divergent visions between the two parties regarding a substantive point that is supposed to be negotiated for the formation of a “National Unity Government” rather than a “Transitional Body” of government. The formation of a government of national unity became a proposal supported by Russia, the United States, and de Mistura. This means an international recognition of the survival of Assad and not to transfer his powers to a transitional government, which goes opposite to Geneva-1 trajectory.

Eradicating Terrorism in Syria

The third crucial obstacle that is threatening the peace process in Syria is how to eliminate terrorism. It is believed that there are approximately 1,000 armed terrorist groups in Syria, commanding around 100,000 fighters. The Syrian military is the largest faction fighting ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The regional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia support some terrorist groups against the Syrian army, while the Syrian military is supported by Russia and its ally Iran.

In the counterterrorism operations against ISIS, the Trump’s administration aims to put the U.S. forces close to the battlefield in Syria which is a greater risk. In a significant development, Trump’s decided to launch missile strikes against Al-Shayrat air base that belongs to the Syrian regime as a response to a military attack against civilians using chemical weapons.

In brief, if the civil war continues, there will be no hope for a lasting elimination of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Reaching a “Lasting Peace in Syrian” is possible. But it requires a willingness to hold a real deal among all parties concerned.

Author: Tamer Mahboub is an author, International Observer at the United Nations, and the Chair of the (IAPSS) Student Research Committee on International Relations Theory. Tamer received a MA degree in Global Affairs from the American University in Cairo in 2014. He wrote his Master’s Thesis on Iran’s nuclear motivations. In 2014, he has published a book on the same subject, available on Amazon. His interests include International Relations, international security studies, nuclear non-proliferation, human rights and conflict resolution.