Syrian Peace Plan Offers Some Hope, but Has Plenty of Pitfalls
UNITED NATIONS — The self-congratulatory speeches that rang inside the Security Council chamber Friday celebrated the fact that, after four and a half years, bitterly divided world powers had finally agreed on a peace plan for Syria.
In the interim, though, 250,000 Syrians died, an exodus of four million refugees swept across the Middle East and Europe, and one of the most brutal terrorist groups in modern times, the Islamic State, dominated and decimated once-great Syrian cities.
It was not the first time an organization born out of the calamities of two world wars had sat in silence as a new horror unfolded. There was the Rwanda genocide in 1994, followed by the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, despite its designation as a United Nations “safe area.” Both were later judged spectacular failures to act; both led to vows that the world community would never again sit back and watch.
But in Syria, the brutality could be seen daily on YouTube, and the Security Council was frozen in a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War, described by many, both inside and outside the Council’s chambers, as a stain on its reputation.
Russia vetoed four resolutions, hoping to protect President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, its only real ally in the Middle East, and host to its one major naval facility outside Russian territory. The Obama administration insisted that Mr. Assad had to leave power before anything else would happen, and refused to allow Iran, the other big player in Syria, to participate in talks in Geneva — two positions it reversed this year.
Only when refugees began arriving by the tens of thousands on Europe’s shores, causing tensions among the European Union’s members, and a Russian plane was shot down by Turkey, did the war reach a tipping point that allowed Moscow and Washington to act.
Friday’s plan is the outcome of what Secretary of State John Kerry tells his administration colleagues was part of a three-month-long “force feeding” of a diplomatic process. But the looming test will be whether it will bring any relief to the people of Syria. The test confronts the world powers — the United States and Russia, principally — but also the regional powers in the region, who can be accused of fueling the war, principally, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
There are plenty of reasons for skepticism, and a few for hope.
The skepticism was voiced most clearly by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who sat next to Mr. Kerry at a news conference at the United Nations after the vote on Friday and said, “I’m not too optimistic about what has been achieved today.”
Minutes later, he bristled when Mr. Kerry noted that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were still aimed at rebel groups opposing Mr. Assad — many of them the same groups that are expected to participate next month in negotiations over forming an alternative government.
Even Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, who has long blamed the major powers for being fixated on Mr. Assad’s fate instead of the fate of the Syrian people, pressed them to behave better.
“I call for you to show vision and leadership in overcoming your differences,” he said. “A fleeting opportunity for peace has emerged; your duty is to seize it.”
But the potential pitfalls are many. Here are a few:
How will a cease-fire work?
The United Nations has cited some local truces that warring Syrian parties, with help from outside backers like Iran and Qatar, have negotiated on the ground. They are far from ideal. Some have involved a transfer of populations based on sect — Shiites to one enclave, Sunnis to another — while other cease-fires have been struck only after civilians in besieged areas were near starvation.
Who would monitor a cease-fire?
Mr. Ban is due to submit to the Security Council a list of options for monitoring a cease-fire within a month. The idea of sending United Nations peacekeepers seems unlikely — there are no clear cease-fire lines, and they would become targets. Other options could include a bloc of countries sending military observers endorsed by the United Nations, though they would have to come from countries seen as having no direct stake in the conflict. Alternatively, cease-fire violations could be monitored by warring parties or civilian organizations, and reported to the United Nations. Still to be considered is the role of technology, like unmanned aerial surveillance — drones — to keep an eye on movements on the ground; whether the government, and its patrons, will agree to such sensitive technology is unclear.
An opposition activist from a Damascus suburb, Aram al-Doumany, 32, accused the government of breaking previous deals and Russia of targeting residential areas with its airstrikes in recent months. He spoke outside the Lotte Palace New York Hotel on Friday, where foreign ministers from more than a dozen countries met to discuss the Syria peace process.
“All of these conferences are just oxygen to keep the regime alive,” he said.
Who will defeat the Islamic State on the ground?
No world leader, certainly no member of the Security Council, has expressed any enthusiasm for sending its soldiers to defeat the Islamic State or the Al Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front. Kurdish forces have been on the front lines in the battle against these groups. But they have also been under fire from Turkey. President Obama told columnists at an off-the-record session on Tuesday that an American intervention would result in 100 American dead each month — a return to the days of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Yet no one has come up with an alternative that seems up to the job. “This is the hole in the plan,” one American military official said recently. “Everyone agrees you can’t do this from the air, and no one can explain who makes up the ground force.” A Saudi plan to organize a multination counterterrorism force could help — but so far there are no Arab states that seem willing to send in a force. One senior Arab official said recently, “for us to go, the Americans have to give us some cover.”
How do you persuade the opposition to fight the Islamic State if there is no guarantee Bashar al-Assad will leave ?
The regional powers, in particular Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will have to be assured — particularly by the West — that they will not let up the pressure to negotiate his exit. Those assurances were voiced inside the Security Council chamber on Friday afternoon, with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, arguing that the Syrian president could no longer be effective. “How could this man unite a population that he has, in large part, helped to massacre?” he said.
“Irrespective of our ideas, we must not conceal an unavoidable political reality. While Bashar al-Assad continues to remain in power, a genuine and lasting reconciliation between the population and the Syrian state seems to be out of reach.”
Who will come to the table?
The opposition groups that Saudi Arabia assembled in mid-December are Sunni Arab militias who range from extremist Sunni ideologues to opposition groups that have promised secular rule. Whether they can make a deal with some of Mr. Assad’s former loyalists is a gamble. The battle for a new constitution is likely to be hard fought, including over the rights of women.
Will the Syrian state hold?
Even if a political transition succeeds over the next two years, as envisioned by the peace plan, American, European and Russian officials fear the prospect of another weak state in a region with sectarian divisions and fertile for the expansion of terrorist organizations. They cite the examples of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. The agreements reached in Vienna, and embraced by the Security Council, call for a united Syria. But many outsiders are concerned that Shiite-Sunni divisions, an inability to govern, and an inability to control territory could lead to a breakup of the country.
What role will Iran play?
Few believe Iran will give up its support of Hezbollah, or work behind the scenes to control the government in Syria. While the Russians may give up on Mr. Assad, who they view as damaged goods, the Iranians seem unwilling. When he was in New York earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran asked a group of visitors who else would run the country — and the list of names put forth, he suggested, was not credible.
As Mr. Kerry said Friday, the resolution notwithstanding, there is no “gilded path” for Syria.
THE NEW YORK TIMES