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Will the US and Russia Embrace an Arab Initiative to Resolve Syria's Crisis?

Will the US and Russia Embrace an Arab Initiative to Resolve Syria's Crisis?

Sunday, 28 March, 2021 - 08:15
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Ten years ago the Syrian people took to the streets demanding freedom, dignity and respect for their human rights.

Little did they know that they would be caught between heavy-handed security measures, terrorism and foreign machinations, all of which fed on one another with calamitous consequences for the Syrian people.

In 2010 Syria was a country with much promise. It was amongst the best performers in achieving the UN Millennium Goals. That is not to say it did not face serious political, social and economic challenges. Below the surface disruptive forces were brewing largely arising from an increasingly skewed income distribution, an urban-rural schism exacerbated by environmental degradation and little space for political freedoms. Ten years hence the once-promising country is on the verge of being a failed state. Its GDP is a mere 40% of that of 2010. 3% of the population have either died or are wounded. More than half its population are either refugees or internally displaced.

No one can escape the responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen the Syrian people. While Syrians are ultimately responsible for their fate, the international community, has not done enough to save the Syrian people from this tragic fate.

Even some Arab states did not exert the needed efforts to bring about a political settlement, which resulted in a vacuum that was filled with regional and international players who confined their efforts to furthering their national interests in Syria and merely managing the conflict rather than resolving it. This is true with the exception of the initial attempt of dispatching a military observer mission in December 2011 to monitor a ceasefire deal, later to be abruptly withdrawn only three weeks later in January 2012.

It is also important to note that once the Arab States League decided in February 2012 to subsume its efforts under that of the UN in the form of the creation of the Joint UN-LAS Special Envoy for Syria, it effectively conceded the lead mediation role to the UN. But for UN mediation efforts to be successful, they require the active backing of the international community as represented by a united UN Security Council.

This, alas, never fully materialized in a sustained manner that was sufficient to allow the UN mediation efforts to realize their full potential. At one point, as a result of an agreement between Moscow and Washington, resolution 2254 was produced to establish a framework for the political settlement which included: a ceasefire in parallel with negotiations, producing new governance, a new constitution, and finally elections under UN supervision. The political process would unfold in an environment where hostilities come to an end but terrorism is effectively addressed, humanitarian assistance is delivered to all who are in need, detainees and abductees are released and, reconstruction starts and refugees are able to return. The implementation of the resolution, however, very quickly fell victim to US- Russian disagreements.

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the opportunity missed by the inability of Washington and Moscow to capitalize on their initial cooperation, rather my intention is to focus on the role of the Arab states. I have long argued that a proactive common and constructive Arab position, would have been critical in bolstering UN efforts to achieve a political settlement.

Today, there has been a glimpse of hope that Arab states might reconsider their positions on Syria. This is reflected in the statements of the foreign ministers of Egypt and the UAE. Also, noteworthy is Qatar’s joining of a newly established platform with Russia and Turkey to advance the political settlement. Moreover, there have been positive signals emanating from Ankara concerning its interest in normalizing relations with Arab countries. These are welcome developments, but on their own they are insufficient. With continued logjam in the political process, what is required is a bold Arab initiative. What adds to the necessity to move fast, is that the present stalemate risks to be exacerbated by what appears to be a re- entrenchment of positions of the Syrian parties.

On the one hand, Damascus is proceeding with the presidential elections this summer. On the other, the opponents of the Syrian government are seeking to delegitimize these elections. If this state of affairs is allowed to continue the possibility of overcoming the stalemate in the political process will become even more removed.

What was missing all along were sufficient incentives for Damascus to cooperate fully with the implementation of resolution 2254. This is particularly important given its conviction that the implementation of the resolution remains regime change. At the same time the international backers of the opposition have avoided to seriously dissuade it from relinquishing its goal of overthrowing the government in Damascus.

Now that there appears to be a near-universal acknowledgment that what is required is a change in behavior of the government, not its removal. It may be time to consider an alternative approach: a comprehensive one, that provides both carrots and sticks to incentivize both Damascus and the opposition to adopt a realistic position on the implementation of resolution 2254. Needless to say, for such a plan to succeed, it requires the full and unequivocal commitment of the Syrian government to meet specific obligations.

Such an initiative cannot be more timely, when the Biden administration is still in the process of articulating its policy on Syria. Also the recent escalation of tensions between Washington and Moscow make it far more difficult for the two capitals to take joint action on Syria. Thus, the current circumstances pave the way for an Arab initiative that would push the US and Russia to act faster on ending the Syrian crisis.

The Arab plan should adopt a comprehensive approach based on a package deal. This would include a number of interlinked elements: holding the presidential elections only after a new or a revised constitution is agreed upon, preparations for free and fair elections administered under the supervision of the UN, reciprocal CBMs between the Syrian government and its domestic and foreign adversaries (including measures to combat terrorism, of release of detainees and abductees and the return of refugees and the displaced ), the return of Syria to the LAS, the lifting of sanctions and releasing funds for reconstruction.

In exchange, the Syrian government would undertake the necessary political and economic reforms to create a safe and secure environment for UN-supervised elections to take place. This would be based on an incremental incentives-based approach and cooperation between the Syrian government, opposition and the UN, with the support of the international community.

Such a plan may force the Syrian parties and their international backers to reconsider their positions and set the stage for serious negotiations to fully implement resolution 2254.

Needless to say, one cannot ignore the regional parties that have influenced, and continue to influence, events in Syria: Iran, Turkey and Israel. Each retains the capacity to intervene if they perceive that matters are moving in a direction inimical to their interests. However, if the US and Russia embrace this approach and have it guide UN efforts, it is unlikely that these three countries will be able to prevent progress on the political settlement in Syria.

Some would consider this approach too ambitious. But the plight of the Syrian people is tragic enough to warrant taking risks. Conversely, to continue along the present course will not only make the present stalemate persist but will also exacerbate the crisis.

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