US must help negotiate peace in Syria or killing will escalate

A man walking amidst the debris of destroyed buildings in the town of Ihsim, in Syria’s Idlib region, which is under assault by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

The withdrawal of American troops late last year was premature, with fighting intensifying in Idlib province, say Charles A Kupchan and Sinan Ülgen

While the world frets about a possible conflict between the United States and Iran, the bloodshed in Syria is escalating. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has intensified its onslaught against the remaining opposition stronghold in Idlib province, which is home to 3m people. To avoid a new humanitarian nightmare and another mass exodus of refugees, the US must renew its peacemaking efforts.

Since a US-backed coalition of (mostly) Kurdish forces dismantled the Islamic State’s (IS) territorial caliphate, the US has begun walking away from Syria. Late last year, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops, effectively ceding negotiations over the country’s future to Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Trump jumped the gun. The renewed fighting in Idlib is a potent reminder that Syria remains a tinderbox. Almost one third of the country is controlled by a Kurdish-led militia that Turkey regards as an enemy. Owing to America’s support of the Kurds and Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian anti-aircraft missiles, US-Turkish relations are near breaking point.

Russia has returned to the region by backing the Assad regime, and Iran has established a Syrian foothold of its own, enhancing its regional influence and increasing the prospect of war with Israel. Instead of ignoring these risks, the US needs to get back in the game of shaping Syria’s future.

As a first step, it should launch a new contact group that includes Turkey, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. The initiative should have three objectives, the first being to pressure the Assad regime to end the violence and accept a decentralised state, in exchange for international help with reconstruction.

To end the conflict, the regime must abandon its offensive in Idlib, and the opposition groups clustered there must agree to disarm and stand down. The political framework for peace and stability in Syria will require a new constitution that provides for regional devolution, while preserving the Syrian government’s monopoly over the use of force.

Allowing a potpourri of autonomous militias to remain in operation would ensure a failed state. For the international community, marshalling the reconstruction should be a top geopolitical and humanitarian priority.

Failure to rebuild Syria’s war-torn communities and to restore the state’s capacity to deliver essential services would leave the door open to an extremist resurgence. Groups like IS prey on social distress. The EU, backed by the UN, should take the lead on overseeing the return of refugees and implementing post-conflict reconstruction.

The contact group’s second goal should be to strike a deal with Syria’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). In exchange for regional autonomy within a decentralised Syrian state, the PYD would end its alignment with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a separatist terror campaign inside Turkey for decades. Provided that the PYD has broken ties with the PKK, the contact group should then spearhead a stabilisation plan for the Kurdish region of Syria.

The US has an obligation to secure the political rights of Syria’s Kurds, who led the fight against IS. But it also must repair its relationship with Turkey. The only way it can do both is to broker a rapprochement between Turkey and the PYD.

To that end, the US should honour its pledge to reclaim heavy weapons that it transferred to the Kurds, and press the PYD to restore local control to the communities it occupied during the campaign against ISIS. The US also needs to help keep Kurdish fighters away from the Turkish border, perhaps via a safe zone in northern Syria (a proposal under discussion in Ankara and Washington).

The Turkish government’s recent re-engagement in direct dialogue with the PYD leadership is encouraging. The contact group’s third objective should be to reduce, if not eliminate, Iranian influence in Syria. With its forces and proxies on the ground, not to mention its considerable leverage over the Syrian government, Iran can stir up trouble not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel.

Simply establishing a new contact group would reduce Iran’s diplomatic clout by barring it from the main forum for negotiating Syria’s future. Beyond that, the group should also make the delivery of reconstruction assistance contingent upon Assad distancing himself from the Iranians.

Trump is right to want out of Syria. But the US must first initiate a new diplomatic peacemaking effort. If Trump walks away prematurely, Syria will be left chronically unstable, and thus vulnerable to a revival of radicalism. Moreover, America’s break with Turkey will have passed the point of no return, Russia will have an unchecked proxy in the Middle East, and Iran will be empowered to foment chaos across the region.

The conditions would be ripe for a renewed conflict that drags the US back into the region at an even higher cost. The choice is an easy one.

Charles A Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the National Security Council from 2014-2017.

Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat, is executive chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.


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