Only through foreign powers striking deals is there a way forward in Syria

With 250,000 killed, millions displaced and IS in control of a swathe of land, the challenges are enormous. But even more problematic is the involvement of foreign forces

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 1:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 9:21am

There was a time that a political solution could easily have been found to end the civil war in Syria. But the crisis has become ever-more complex, drawing in outside groups and making it difficult to determine who should and should not take part in negotiations. The latest United Nations effort is expected to begin today, but there is uncertainty, even for the organisers, who will be seated around the table in Geneva. There is no doubt, though, that it is less embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, opposition rebels and extremists like Islamic State that matter; rather, it is the foreign powers with vested interests that have been fuelling the conflict.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has a formidable agenda in steering the talks, set to take at least six months under a UN Security Council resolution agreed last October. The goals are to bring about a broad ceasefire, stop IS and get aid to refugees and those trapped in conflict zones. The first phase, to last two to three weeks, will involve finding common ground to ensure that discussions can go smoothly forward. With more than 250,000 people having been killed during the five years of conflict, half of Syria’s population of 22 million displaced, at least four million of them having become refugees or migrants, and IS controlling one-third of the land area, the challenges are enormous.

But even more problematic is the involvement of outside forces. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have been propping up the Syrian regime with funding, weapons and fighters. A US-led coalition, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are seeking Assad’s removal and replacement with a transitional government; they have been supporting groups opposed to the regime. That has complicated the invitation list for the talks, particular rebels being acceptable to one side but not the other.

Negotiations between Assad and rebels will not bring about a political solution nor defeat IS. That will come about only through the US and its allies striking deals with Russia and Iran to forge a way forward.