Conference only solution

At last there is a sense of direction on Syria policy following Secretary of State John Kerry’s talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week, which resulted in their announced intention to convene an international conference in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, the conflict is not yet ripe for such a conference, which will ultimately be the only way out of the Syria quagmire with a chance of international guarantees. The reason is that neither side is yet ready to deal. Both the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which have been pushing back the rebels at the gates of Damascus, and of the armed opposition still seem to think that they can win on the battlefield. 

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The Syrian rebels say to the West: Why won’t you arm us, like you did the Libyan rebels? The answer is simple: Syria isn’t Libya. The Syrian conflict has already drawn in the Iranians, who have military trainers on the ground in support of Assad, and the Turks, Qataris and Saudis, on the side of the rebels, which includes the now dominant al-Nusra, linked to al Qaeda. The Israelis won’t sit on the sidelines if they feel their security is under threat, as they demonstrated earlier this month by striking a Syrian facility holding advanced Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah Islamist militants in Lebanon.

The Russians are still smarting from NATO’s invoking of a U.N. resolution to overthrow Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. They maintain that the no-fly zone they approved at the United Nations was never intended as a cover for regime change in Tripoli. That remains their position today on Damascus. 

Reaching further back in time, there’s a more relevant precedent: It’s Afghanistan, another country of strategic importance where the big powers engaged in a proxy war over generations.

In particular, Washington was burned in Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation after arming Islamist rebels who gave rise to al Qaeda. As an aide to President Obama said in a recent edition of The New Yorker when talking about Syria, “we’ve seen this movie before.”

To end this civil war, there will have to be an international conference, probably mirroring the Bonn conference in 2001, which for all its flaws produced a timetable for a transition to democratic rule in Afghanistan.

But the Russians have already recognized that such a forum can’t be held at the end of this month, amid bickering over who would be the “legitimate” negotiators from the divided opposition and the role of Assad. The Syrian president continues to insist that he will only stand down if he is beaten in elections next year, and would therefore be the Syrian head of state during the international conference.

This is unacceptable to the rebels who say that Assad must go. Meanwhile, the Assad regime refuses to talk to any rebels linked to “terrorists” and is demanding an end to foreign intervention that is accused of feeding terror.

It’s clear that Moscow and Washington had not lined up their respective Syrian allies behind their initiative when they announced their intention to hold a conference. So while demonstrating a new sense of unity that had been lacking until now between the Obama administration and the Russian government, there is still much work to be done.

In the light of the U.S.-Russia agreement, Lakhdar Brahimi — who led the Bonn conference on Afghanistan — has withdrawn his resignation as international envoy for Syria. But I fear that between now and the holding of an international conference, there is worse bloodshed still to come.

Penketh is a long-time foreign correspondent based in Paris who writes about security issues. She is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.