WASHINGTON: As diplomats prepare for an oft-postponed international peace conference on Syria next month, a look at past civil wars suggests that the Syrian conflict is far from resolution. On average, civil wars since 1945 have lasted around 10 years. By that measure, Syria’s 33-month-old war is in its early stages.
That helps explain growing doubts that the forthcoming peace conference planned for the Swiss city of Montreux for Jan. 22 could hasten the end of a multisided conflict that has so far killed more than 120,000 people and caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in Middle Eastern history. More than 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, and almost half of those who remain in the country depend on aid, according to the U.N.
While experts on Syria have long been skeptical about the prospects of success of a conference, officials of the 30-odd countries that have been invited have tended to keep their doubts out of the public discourse. But on Dec. 14, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sounded a note of deep pessimism: “We are working on the success of the ... talks, but we can have a great deal of doubt on that. If sadly it isn’t successful, that would mean this martyred country will continue to suffer, as will its neighbors.” Suffer for low long?
Barbara Walter, a professor at the University of California who has written extensively about civil wars, points out that the greater the number of factions, the longer civil wars tend to last. In Syria, there are hundreds of separate rebel units and five main factions – forces loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad, the Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, the newly formed Islamic Front, plus the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The latter two have been designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State, which means they cannot be part of negotiations.
John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state who has been trying to get the peace conference together for more than a year, this week described the situation as “a huge sectarian mess.”
For the Obama administration and its Western allies, that mess became even messier in the first week of December when fighters of the Islamic Front, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, overran positions and a number of warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. That was a major blow to its credibility – and that of the Obama administration, which had been instrumental in the formation of a moderate, secular force but then failed to supply the weapons the FSA requested.
The U.S. response to the SMC’s loss of its stores was to cut off nonlethal military aid, a move that further marginalized the group.
According to Walter, the fragmented nature of the opposition to the Assad regime makes it likely that the war will last longer than average. Writing on the website Political Violence @ a Glance, she also points out that most of the civil wars in the past seven decades have ended in military victories – governments won in 40 percent of the conflicts studied, rebels in 35 percent. Only 15 percent ended in negotiated settlements. For these to be successful, there must be a third party willing to keep the peace. Who might that be in Syria? At this point, there are no takers for the role.
Early in December, a “peace game” that simulated negotiations such as those planned for Switzerland highlighted experts’ bleak views of the chances for success of the peace conference. The exercise brought together 46 senior former administration officials, ex-ambassadors and academics with Middle East expertise who played the role of parties involved in, or affected by, the Syrian war, from the Assad government and its allies Russia and Iran to the U.S., Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon.
Straw polls taken during the exercise showed that 70 percent thought that a peace agreement within the next two years was unlikely. Eighty percent had no confidence that the talks in Switzerland would result in progress toward peace. Most thought Washington’s influence in the negotiations would be marginal, unlike that of Russia.
One of the position papers prepared for the exercise, run by the United States Institute of Peace, a government think tank, and Foreign Policy magazine, posed a question that must be on the mind of many of those invited to Switzerland: “Is the Syrian conflict ripe for resolution?” Ripeness was defined as the time when the antagonists feel they cannot overcome the other parties no matter how much the fighting escalates. In Lebanon, it took 15 years and more than 140,000 deaths to reach that point.
By that standard, Syria is “a young conflict,” as one of the participants in the exercise put it, “that shows characteristics of aging into intractability.”
Next month’s conference is a follow-up to a Geneva meeting in the summer of 2012 that laid out the framework of a settlement and included a condition that looks akin to squaring the circle – a transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the Assad government and would be formed “on the basis of mutual consent.” Despite a flurry of diplomatic activity, that mutual consent is nowhere in sight.