Obstacles to Syrian cease-fire aren’t insurmountable

The coming peace talks in Geneva provide hope for setting lines for a cease-fire in Syria. To draw those lines, three separate homelands must be created, with input by outside powers. Some will say this is impossible. Not so.

Jalal Alhalabi/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters man a checkpoint to prevent members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from entering a neighborhood in Aleppo January 7. Five days of heavy rebel infighting has shaken the ISIL, which lost its main base in the northern city of Aleppo to rival rebels on Wednesday, according to a monitoring group.

The Conference on Syria planned for January 22 in Geneva, Switzerland (known as the Geneva II talks), convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is the one hope left for a quick cease-fire. Yet that will be very difficult to achieve.

On humanitarian grounds, a genuine, monitored cease-fire is imperative – but realpolitik, some will argue, means there can be no cease-fire until exhaustion or victory. Also, cease-fire lines have a tradition of becoming permanent, leading to something too close to de facto partition, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or the emergence of a new country, as in Kosovo.

Yet civil war in Syria has reached the point where the only alternative to a cease-fire is a long drawn-out fight to the death, something which zealots like but civilians deplore. With Saudi money funding all Sunni groups in Syria including Al Qaeda-aligned ones, and with Iran militarily involved, no end is in sight.

The problem with cease-fire lines is that they are immensely hard to draw. There are few, if any, absolutes. Ideally the parties negotiate solutions with or without intermediaries – but to start that process, someone or some organization needs to kickstart a bold solution that can then be disputed by the parties.

In Geneva, the list of participants already indicates that this will be a regional conference – and rightly so. It is still not clear whether Israel and Iran will be around the table. Hopefully they both will be. This is neither the time nor place for non-regional powers to impose a map, as happened to Syria in the 1919 peace negotiations in Paris. Ninety-five years later, those maps are in part responsible for the present conflict. The region must own any new map.

Gathering together all the experience of recent conflicts, there are lessons to be taken into consideration for Syria.

We must not pre-empt a long-term solution because of short-term cease-fire lines of demarcation. Seven or eight internal regional boundaries retain more flexibility than two or three provinces.

And we must keep intact, as far as possible, existing administrative boundaries to help overcome immediate destruction and chaos. This also allows more players with local constituencies into the negotiating process.

In Syria there seem to be three high hurdles to be surmounted. There are three homelands that have to be recognized, made secure, and must basically become inviolate.

First, the Sunni population will have to believe that it will remain responsible for the administration and security of the town of Hama, now under Al Qaeda control. Hama was shelled to virtual destruction in 1982, with 15,000 Sunnis killed or seriously injured by President Hafez al-Assad’s forces.

Second, the Alawites have to believe that, going back to the 1925 precedent, they will remain responsible for the administration and security of the Jebel el Ansariye mountains to the Mediterranean and the towns of Latakia, Tartus, Talkalakh, and Homs.

Third, the Kurds will have to believe that, going back to the 1919 arguments about a Kurdish homeland and unfulfilled promises of a state, they will be responsible for the administration and security of a part of the Northeast bordered by Turkey and Iraq.

As for Damascus and some parts of the region of Rif Dimashq, it is tempting to look for some mechanisms of joint or independent administration, like those agreed upon for Sarajevo at one stage, but the history of such arrangements is not encouraging. Given the likely strong opposition of religious minorities to their perceived fragile security, it looks wiser to stick with the current situation, where some of the suburbs of Damascus will be, for a time at least, outside a unified city administration.

As for Aleppo, held by the government forces, a hard bargain will have to be struck. For the government to concede Aleppo, it will in exchange want occupied territory around Damascus and down to the frontier with Jordan.

Countries bordering Syria – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq – will have views on what regional administrations they would prefer as neighbors. They cannot have the final say, but given the horrendous refugee problem and the continuing need for humanitarian assistance and aid convoys from these countries, trust and working relationships will be crucial for years.

There is an undoubted role for UN monitoring of the cease-fire, particularly if the five permanent members of the Security Council will agree to send monitoring teams. The close proximity of existing, largely successful UN monitoring teams should allow for some of their members being seconded for immediate deployment. Experience shows that delay in deployment is very often deeply damaging.

Spelling out some of this detail runs the risk of making it appear easy to achieve. In reality the task is daunting. There is, however, no practical possibility of any cease-fire being imposed by external force. The Geneva II conference will have to settle for what is feasible.

We can hope to forge an agreement stopping helicopters and planes from flying – something that could possibly be imposed. To also stop bullets and shells will require the evolution of a dialogue between military commanders in the field, who will have to try to control their rogue elements, and local and national political leaders.

As a practical reality, under such arrangements as these, the rule of the Assad family will cease to apply across over half the country and may become a memory.

Some will say this is all impossible. Not so. We were told it would be impossible to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria without bombing – yet they are on track to be destroyed and abolished, because of cooperation between Russia and the United States, helped by bombing being blocked by the British Parliament and the US Congress. Iran has a chance to demonstrate its traditional position as a country content to live within its existing boundaries. And now that the distrust and antagonism raised over Libya has eased, the UN Security Council is at long last working together.

David Owen is a former British foreign secretary and editor of “Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Vance/Owen Peace Plan,” Liverpool University Press, 2013.

© 2014 Global Viewpoint Network, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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