America in Search of an Un-Geneva for Syria


You might think that, by now, the U.S. policy community would have given up on Syria’s Geneva peace talks. You would be wrong.

U.N.-sponsored Geneva talks to resolve the Syrian civil war, now coming up on their ninth round, are unworkable. The reason why is not a secret: the talks pit the entirely uncooperative regime of Bashar al-Assad against a dubiously representative opposition, in the expectation that, together, they will negotiate an impossible political transition. After eight rounds, the two sides still have not talked directly. It is a negotiating binary that is totally broken. Even Geneva’s most active international participants recognize talks are going nowhere, even if they feel unable to walk away.

Still, Geneva just keeps coming back. Now the Trump administration has settled on Geneva as a way to make a whole out of the disconnected parts of U.S. Syria policy. What’s more, they are counting on this policy means — in conjunction with other theoretical leverage, including funds for Syrian reconstruction and America’s military presence in Syria’s post-Islamic State northeast — to deliver ultra-ambitious ends, up to and including regime change.

“We are confident that the fulfillment of these talks will produce a Syria that is free of Bashar al-Assad and his family,” wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in The New York Times on Dec. 27.

As I argued recently for the Century Foundation, this will not work. So, what will?

It is not hard to explain why Geneva is not useful. But it’s a bit harder to actually identify good alternatives in what is, realistically, an adverse policy environment. If the United States has interests in Syria that need to be secured in part through political means, what is the un-Geneva?

False Agreement

 First, we need to take in the strategic landscape in Syria, where Russia has successfully bigfooted the United States and its allies. With its September 2015 military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime, Moscow far exceeded Washington’s limited commitment in Syria and assumed political-military primacy in the country’s war. Without a risky intervention against the Assad regime — something no one is seriously considering at this stage — the United States cannot recapture the initiative on the national level, or hope to define the war’s final resolution against Russian preferences.

Still, even as Russia has assumed ownership of Syria, Washington and its allies control key spaces on the country’s periphery and possess some relevant if non-decisive leverage. These stakes aren’t sufficient to achieve an American victory, but they are enough to deny Moscow a comprehensive victory on Russian terms.

There are also discrete points of commonality on which it makes sense to align U.S. policy with, not against, the Russian project in Syria. But recognizing them requires a clear-eyed assessment of Russia’s real priorities in Syria.

“While we are on guard against Russian aggression, we recognize the need to work with Russia where mutual interests intersect,” Tillerson wrote in the same New York Times piece. He continued:

Nowhere is that more evident than in Syria. Now that President Vladimir Putin has committed to the United Nations-backed Geneva political process for providing a new future for Syria, we expect Russia to follow through. 

But contra the November joint statement from Presidents Putin and Trump to which Tillerson was referring, there is no substantive U.S.-Russian agreement on a process to resolve the Syrian war, or on even the vague outlines of a political settlement.

In the November statement, Putin and Trump “confirmed that the ultimate political solution to [Syria’s] conflict must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 2254.” Yet this resolution is what gives Geneva both its international legitimacy and its unworkable binary structure. And there is no alternative internationally legitimate political track. If resolution 2254 was abandoned, it is unlikely the U.N. Security Council could muster the sufficient consensus and will to pass a successor resolution. The likely alternative would be void, not something wiser and better.

Russia seems to recognize that Geneva is incapable of forward progress. Yet Geneva is also necessary to ratify a conclusion to Syria’s war on Russia’s terms, re-legitimizing Russia’s Syrian ally and unlocking international funding for Syrian reconstruction. Russia has therefore exported key elements of resolution 2254 — including ceasefires, detainee releases, the drafting of a new constitution, and U.N.-supervised elections — to a set of parallel processes in Astana and Sochi. These more dynamic political processes are not paralyzed by Geneva’s central question of transition and can make more targeted progress. At some later point, Russia intends to slot these elements back into Geneva to comprise a technically 2254-compliant deal that it hopes can garner international approval. That deal will, in all likelihood, amount to a restoration of the Assad regime.

This is not Washington’s vision for a stabilizing end-state in Syria. U.S. policymakers who have convinced themselves there is real common ground between Washington and Moscow on a comprehensive political solution seem mainly to have been mirror-imaging, not objectively reading Russian preferences.

Pending a major redefinition of America’s goals — one that basically defines away current U.S. objectives — a national political settlement in the Syrian war is not a promising opportunity for U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Where is the Russian-American Convergence?

The productive avenues for U.S. political engagement in Syria are at the subnational level, in negotiations over the dispensation of areas where the United States and its allies still exert effective control. These areas are the opposition-held southwest, on the borders of Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and the post-Islamic State northeast, where U.S. troops and diplomats are now stationed on the ground alongside America’s Kurdish-led local Syrian partners.

Among outsiders involved in Syria’s war, Russia dominates any negotiation over Syria as a whole, including negotiations over the character of the central Syrian state in Damascus. The United States should undercut that Russian dominance at the national level by aiming lower, focusing its diplomatic engagement on these specific zones of demonstrable American influence.

Even in these areas, the objective should not be to protect foreign objects that are rejected by the Syrian body politic. The United States cannot credibly promise to sponsor these regional entities forever. Regional projects that are totally, permanently alienated from the regime in Damascus have no prospects for independent sustainability and survival. America’s local partners need to be reintegrated, on some basis, into a regime-led system. Given the regime’s bloody-mindedness and America’s non-functional relationship with Iran, Russia is the only realistic interlocutor and co-guarantor in these talks.

Just as the Russians are working to reengineer the national-level Geneva process from within, the United States should be looking to get inside subnational processes that are fundamentally Russian-owned — retooling them just enough to secure American interests, but not so much that Russia cannot still adopt and advance them.

This is what Turkey currently seems to be doing in Syria. Turkey is not working to somehow defeat Russia. It is modifying the edges of a Russian project in an attempt to accommodate its own interests — basically, tailoring a Russian suit.

America’s interests in these peripheral zones include the survival of its local partners and proxies; counter-terrorism; and basic service functioning and provision of humanitarian aid, to keep these populations stable. On these issues, U.S. and Russian interests are less obviously contradictory than on questions of transition and power in Damascus.

It helps, as well, that America’s interests in these areas are partially derivative of the interests of its regional allies, Syria’s neighbors. Russia has its own bilateral relationships with neighboring countries and is evidently solicitous of their concerns and well-being. In December, Russia declined to veto a mostly intact reauthorization for cross-border humanitarian access in the U.N. Security Council, contrary to humanitarians’ and donors’ pessimistic expectations. Afterwards, I was told by sources familiar with the deliberations that Russia’s calculus was seemingly affected by lobbying from both Jordan and Turkey to maintain this humanitarian lifeline and avoid destabilizing the opposition enclaves on their borders. Russia’s relationships with regional U.S. allies may be complex, but they aren’t pointlessly vindictive.

These cross-cutting relationships are most relevant in Syria’s southwest. In this corner of the country, Russia’s ties with both Israel and Jordan mean it has a vested interest in a “de-escalation” agreement that both sets the rebel southwest on an orderly path to partial reintegration into the Syrian state and keeps Iranian proxies away from those countries’ borders.

For the United States, the de-escalation agreement it negotiated earlier this year with Jordan and Russia was a chance to entangle Russia so thoroughly in a local arrangement that it could preempt a future military offensive by the regime on the southwest. With some political subtlety, it might have been possible to retain southern insurgents as lasting U.S.-Jordanian clients inside an Assad-led order.

It may now be too late for the southwest deal to succeed because of disconnects inside the U.S. government over America’s longer-term vision for the southwest, which snarled issues like the payment of rebel salaries and the opening of Syria and Jordan’s Nasib border crossing to commercial traffic. (Without Nasib trade, the regime has minimal real incentive to abide by the de-escalation.) Still, it seems worthwhile to try to salvage the southwestern de-escalation and to work seriously towards non-Geneva political arrangements that could ensure its long-term viability.

The alternative to a stabilizing deal on the southwest is likely stepped-up unilateral Israeli action, which could escalate dangerously in both Syria and in neighboring Lebanon.

In Syria’s northeast, U.S. allies’ interests run in the opposite direction. Or one ally, mainly — Turkey. In its fight against the Islamic State, America’s preferred partners have been the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian manifestation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and which Turkey considers a grave, ongoing threat to Turkish stability and territorial integrity.

If the United States abruptly withdraws its forces from the northeast, the region seems likely to spin up into a bloody vortex, as Turkey or the Assad regime (or both) attack America’s erstwhile Kurdish partners.

The northeast is likely safe so long as U.S. forces are on the ground, but they cannot occupy the region forever. For now, there is no fixed timetable for an American withdrawal. Officials have said publicly that U.S.-led forces will remain until the northeast is on a stable post-Islamic State footing and there is “meaningful progress in the Geneva-based political process pursuant to UNSCR 2254.” But while U.S. commitment to the northeast may be indefinite, it is apparently not unlimited. In my last round of Washington meetings in October, most estimates of the remaining U.S. deployment hovered around two years. America’s modest investment in rebuilding post-Islamic State Raqqa — providing “stabilization” assistance, not more expansive “reconstruction” aid that might be tarred as “nation-building” — is already an indication of its incomplete commitment to the region. And eventually, U.S. planners will realize that “meaningful progress” in Geneva is not forthcoming.

For the United States, staying in the northeast means backstopping a resource-starved, isolated YPG entity that unsettles every adjacent political force, to little clear political end.

Much of the official effort and analytical work on how to reconcile the northeast’s political contradictions has focused on managing the conflict between the YPG/PKK and Turkey, the nexus of the “Kurdish issue” regionally. But there is little reason to expect a breakthrough along this Turkey-YPG/PKK axis — not reason enough for U.S. policymakers to plan as if a resolution is on the way. And even in the best case, neutralizing the threat of a cross-border Turkish attack does not reconcile the YPG with its Syrian context.

The United States should be investing more official energy in the YPG-regime axis, including more forcefully urging the YPG to deal independently with Assad. It should also be testing Russia’s capability and willingness to broker an arrangement that it could help guarantee against Turkey. Multi-sided engagement involving the regime, the YPG, and Russia is already happening independently, to some extent, and the YPG and regime have reached some limited accommodations in areas both inside and outside the U.S.-shielded northeast. The United States should encourage more.

Neither the YPG nor the regime currently seem inclined to make the hard compromises necessary for a stabilizing deal. But the U.S. government should seek to clarify its intentions internally and then effectively communicate them to the YPG and the Russians, in a way that will lend urgency to these ongoing discussions and concentrate at least the YPG’s collective mind on tolerable concessions.

The issue in Syria’s northeast is one of timing. The Assad regime, Turkey, and the YPG are local, and they are invested, in perpetuity, in the struggle over political control of the northeast. The United States is not, and it cannot realistically plan to maintain a military presence in Syria until the interested Syrian and Turkish parties become conciliatory and reasonable. With its local Kurdish partners, it should be trying to impress upon them the need to plan on an American timetable — and to adjust their political demands accordingly.

Attempting to integrate YPG-regime talks into Geneva is not advisable. The exclusion of the YPG from the Geneva binary is one of the reasons for Geneva’s limited relevance, but bringing a backroom, Syrian-Syrian discussion over the northeast into Geneva’s bright lights will not make Geneva useful. It will only burden what might otherwise be a productive negotiating track with Geneva’s unworkable baggage.

The Bare Minimum 

These subnational political tracks — not Geneva — are where the United States has a realistic chance of guaranteeing its interests in Syria.

Still, even as the United States prioritizes these subnational efforts, it can continue to participate, pro forma, in Geneva. Geneva does not merit a substantial political investment, and no other line of U.S. Syria policy should be made to depend on the U.N.-sponsored process’s success. But quitting Geneva would entail its own political costs. And ongoing aimless talks are a relatively low-impact way to trip up Russia and deny legitimacy to a Russian political solution that the United States considers pernicious. A still-extant Geneva may also become useful at some later point, if some unforeseen shock remakes the politics of the war, or if Washington wants to use Geneva as a forum to formalize an agreement made elsewhere.

Geneva may just collapse before then, under the cumulative weight of round after round of non-progress. But there doesn’t seem to be a compelling U.S. interest in actively bringing Geneva down.

This is what an alternative U.S. political effort in Syria looks like. It falls short of U.S. policy planners’ current ambitions for a Geneva-centric effort, but those amount, in any case, to an impossible wish list. The removal of Assad, inclusive and legitimate postwar governance, Iran’s exit from Syria — these were not achievable at America’s previous level of effort, when it was applying indirect political pressure on the regime and its backers using insurgent proxies, and they are not achievable now. The United States will not secure a victory-like outcome in Syria through diplomacy and hypothetical reconstruction funding.

Washington needs to focus on more narrowly defined interests and achievable goals in Syria. They do not include a comprehensive, national political solution, which should be regarded, for policy purposes, as basically optional.

It is these more small-ball, local processes that can give America the minimum it needs as it winds down its involvement in this war. For Syria, it won’t mean a good outcome. But for U.S. interests, it could be good enough.


Sam Heller is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a Beirut-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.

Image: UN Geneva/Flickr