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Can Sochi be Syria’s Taif?

In October 1989, the surviving members of the 1972 Lebanese Parliament convened in the Saudi city of Taif. They reached an agreement to end the 14-year-long civil war by altering the terms on which the Lebanese Republic itself was founded. The deal, mediated by Saudi Arabia and brokered through American and Syrian efforts, saw the Lebanese Parliament divided equally between Christians and Muslims, and delegated some of the powers previously enjoyed by the Christian Maronite president to the Sunni Muslim prime minister. 
On Tuesday[1] , 1,600 Syrian delegates representing a plethora of factions gathered[2]  in the Russian city of Sochi. Unlike Lebanon, all interested parties want the Syrian solution to be non-sectarian. But, will Sochi bring about a final resolution the way Taif did? The simple answer is no. To end the Lebanese war, international and regional brokers agreed on one agenda. Ahead of Sochi, the differences between the powers involved in Syria seem irreconcilable.
Sochi was made possible by the Astana process, which brought together Russia, Turkey and Iran. Agreements over Idlib and other areas have helped reduce the tensions between these powers and led them to facilitate a political track. The Turkish-supported Syrian Interim Government [3] was first present at the conference, but its members later withdrew. Nonetheless, Erdogan and Putin agreed to follow through on the Sochi communiqué the day after the conference. The High Negotiations Committee decided to boycott, but some of its members attend[4] ed individually. Kurdish representatives (most importantly the YPG) were invited as individuals, not as political entities — a testament to Turkey’s renewed leverage. 
On a parallel track, another international-regional power bloc has put forward a different vision for a political solution. Last week, the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan met in Paris to produce a detailed paper on the Syrian crisis and called on the opposition not to attend Sochi.

Although any peace talks are a good step forward, in order for a real solution to materialize all interested parties must reach the conclusion that nothing could be gained from the continuation of the conflict.

Fadi Esber

The Sochi communique, drafted by UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura and modified by the Russians, and which the delegates vote[5] d to pass, agrees to a political solution along the lines of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It talks of a democratic and non-sectarian Syria, and free and fair elections. The communique affirms that the military and security services shall perform their duties in protecting the country in accordance with the constitution. It also stipulates the formation of a committee that will look into constitutional reforms, and another that will handle elections. The delegates at Sochi also issue[6] d a call for the international community to lift the sanctions on Syria that are currently in place, and to disassociate the reconstruction process and the return of refugees from the political track.
Meanwhile, the five powers convened in Paris also affirmed their desire for a political process based on Resolution 2254 — but that’s the only point they share with the Russian draft. Unlike the Sochi communique, the Paris paper demands fundamental changes in the Syrian political system, reducing the powers of the president in favor of the prime minister, as well as reforming the security apparatus. The paper also calls for free and fair elections, in which refugees will take part, under the strict supervision of the United Nations. The United States and the EU asserted, once more, that the reconstruction process will only start when a “meaningful” political transition has taken place in Syria.
Beyond both papers being under the umbrella of Resolution 2254, which Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump agreed to in their latest meeting in Vietnam, the visions put forward by the Russian and American-led blocs seem irreconcilable. While Russia sees only constitutional reforms that are far from drastic, the other bloc demands changes in the nature of the Syrian political system. The same goes for their views on the Syrian military and security apparatus. Russia sees Sochi as supplementing the fledgling Geneva process, while the US fears the Russians wants Geneva supplanted by Sochi. Russia wants a reconstruction effort with no strings attached, while Americans are bent on using both sanctions relief and the funds needed for reconstruction as leverage to achieve the political outcomes they desire in Syria. The UN can do little to bridge this gap.
But, apart from political disagreements, another crucial factor stands in the way of any actual settlement. The Taif peace terms had been on the table as far back as 1976, a mere year after the outbreak of war. But it took the Lebanese, and all interested international and regional players, another 13 years to reach a final agreement on the desired solution, simply because the geopolitical environment was not yet suitable for a solution. Israel had invaded Lebanon and then retreated, the US landed its marines in Beirut before withdrawing, the PLO left the country in 1982, and Syria, after many setbacks, emerged as the dominant player in the country. It took Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to bring a final convergence of Syrian and American interests, allowing Damascus to dislodge the stubborn anti-Taif Gen. Michel Aoun from the presidential palace through a decisive military intervention. The civil war was finally brought to an end, and the Taif formula became the basis for a new political system in Lebanon.
In Syria, the geopolitical situation remains highly unstable. The Kurdish question is far from resolved, as Turkey is becoming increasingly involved in northern Syria. The United States seems adamant on solidifying its presence in the northeastern parts of the country, and its defense secretary has announced that American forces will not leave Syria until a political transition is achieved. The fates of Idlib and the Al-Nusra Front remain open questions. Above all, Russian-American tensions could escalate once more.
Therefore, although any peace talks are a good step forward, in order for a real solution to materialize all interested international and regional powers have to reach the conclusion that nothing could be gained from the continuation of the conflict. Only then will a final resolution have the chance to succeed.
Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.