Almost six months on from when direct Syria peace talks were scheduled to begin, is it time to admit the failure of the latest Syrian peace process and look into alternative ways forward?
United Nations Envoy Staffan de Mistura announced last week that he would not attempt to reconvene the Syria peace talks until August, saying that the time was “not yet mature for the official third round of intra-Syrian talks”.
Violence in the country is spiking and making a mockery of the international community’s “cessation of hostilities” agreed in February. Things are looking particularly bad in Aleppo as the regime and allied forces apply the squeeze on opposition-held areas.
The one route out of the city has become known as “the road of death” such is the frequency of strikes upon it, and those civilians who remain fear a total siege. Muskilda Zancada, the head of mission for Syria at Doctors Without Borders bemoaned how “the world is turning a blind eye” to the carnage in Aleppo.
“Hospitals, markets, and residential areas are still under fire, and no one is doing anything to put out the flames,” she said.
Testing ground for Russian weaponry
After attacks in Idlib were reported to have killed some 40 people, Dr Riyad Hijab, general coordinator for the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), responded to the attacks by claiming that “Russia clearly aims to exterminate Syrians and turn Syria into a testing ground for Russian weaponry”.
Meanwhile, the suburb of Daraya, which has been under siege since 2012, saw a glimmer of hope when global pressure allowed food aid in.
This opening was quickly put in brutal perspective when regime forces dropped 68 barrel bombs on Daraya just hours after the aid had arrived. This bombing left France “outraged beyond words”, yet words have so far failed to deliver on the cautious optimism that we started the year with.
De Mistura’s marshalled Vienna agreement set out an ambitious new package to bring the conflict to an end with direct talks supposed to start in January, a new credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian government expected before June.
After that, as well as a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, UN supervised elections were planned by the middle of 2017.
Instead the opposing sides have yet to meet face to face, the good intentions and hopes of the “cessation of hostilities” has degenerated into conflict and talk of transition have been summarily executed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s vow made last week to retake “every inch” of Syria.
Russian duplicity, US disinterest
De Mistura, the man with the hardest job in the world, has seemingly been let down by a combination of regime deceit, Russian duplicity, US disinterest and opposition disorganisation.
The continued focus on the Islamic State (ISIS) has meant that much of the debate on Syria is centred on counterterrorism efforts, while in European capitals it is the migration crisis that frames attitudes towards the conflict.
Meanwhile the marginalisation of the UN and its agencies was attacked in the media this week when it was revealed they have recently launched an anti-smoking drive in the country.
For too long the talks have been seen as the “only game in town” and therefore have not been critically challenged. They have been defined by much process and all too little peace.
Syria is in clear and desperate need of a “new deal” that can help chart the country and its remaining people out of the conflict.
Frederic Hof, formerly US President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, wrote recently that “for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria is all about beating the United States”.
Top down efforts from global powers, either with or without the domestic protagonists present, have had little success. There needs to be a de-geopoliticisation of the conflict, with genuine independent help from countries that have endured their own recent history of violence.
Options for tomorrow
One interesting alternative is the International Dialogue made up of a number of actors including the g7 group of fragile and conflict-affected states.
The Dialogue’s flagship “New Deal” aspires to change what and how things are done to support countries’ transitions from conflict and fragility via nationally-owned and led development plans.
With successes in Sierra Leone and Somalia, there are lessons for whether it can be applied to the Syria. The lack of BRICS actors – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – currently within the Dialogue and the current belligerence of the regime may not make this the best option for the present climate but could be something for the Syria of the future.
Engaging in a serious debate about the options for tomorrow is far more useful than pretending the processes of today are delivering when they so clearly are not. If you needed a powerful reminder of this just take a few minutes of your day to watch an event that will scar a family forever as three brothers went out to play in Aleppo and only two came home alive. We can do better for Syria, we must.
Written by: James Denselow, Al-Jazeera
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.