Moment of truth for a Syrian peace

Peace talks planned in Geneva may succeed if all sides abide by the Security Council demand for UN-run elections. The power of guns may give way to the power of democracy.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (left) and head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) Nasr al-Hariri shake hands prior to the start of a new round of Syria's peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland Nov. 28.

One fallacy about the long war in Syria has been that it is simply a contest for military dominance – between groups of Syrians, between foreign powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between all of them and the terrorist group Islamic State. But with peace talks due to open Nov. 29, the United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, offers an alternative narrative.

He says “a moment of truth” has now arrived for the “real” contest, a political solution that could possibly play out next year in UN-supervised elections under a new Syrian constitution.

The reason such a view is credible lies in the fact that the war began in 2011 out of resistance to a similar “truth.” Liberated in their thinking by the Arab Spring, millions of Syrians rose up in peaceful protest to demand democracy. Since then, the anti-democratic forces, led by Russia, have largely prevailed on the battlefield. Now exhausted by war and unable to pay for the rebuilding of Syria, they have opened a door to a negotiated settlement leading to elections under UN supervision.

The foreign powers backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must face a simple truth. Only the democratic countries in Europe as well as the United States can afford to rebuild Syria or revive its economy. For that reason and because of domestic pressure at home, Russian President Vladimir Putin went along with a Security Council demand for the Geneva talks to focus on a new constitution and elections.

Or as Mr. de Mistura put it, any peace process must enable “Syrians to determine their own future freely.”

Dictatorships like the Assad regime are inherently unstable because they rely on physical threats to stay in control rather than tolerating an open contest of political ideas in elections. The arc of history still bends toward democracy, or a respect for individual rights and equality before the law. Over time, those values can be as powerful as bullets.

These talks are the eighth attempt over many years to end a war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives. This time, however, the outside powers appear ready to force a deal on the Syrians. A total military victory seems out of reach.

The fallacy that power lies in guns has been exposed. This leaves Syrians on all sides at a “moment of truth,” or the need for an agreement that defines power by democratic means.

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