Might the attacks in Paris push Russia and the West closer to a common goal in Syria and be the start of a common international diplomatic plan to end the conflict?
One of the enduring features of the Syria conflict is that even as it metastasized, the international community — namely the Security Council — has been unable to coalesce over a plan to stop the carnage. The basic diplomatic dynamic has largely remained unchanged since fighting broke four and half years ago: the USA, Europe, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were adamant that any resolution must include Assad’s ouster; while Russia and Iran strenuously backed the Syrian government. Most diplomatic initiatives have hit this roadblock. The Kofi Annan plan, then “Geneva 1,” then “Geneva 2,” then Lakhdar Brahimi’s interventions, and more recently UN envoy Steffan di Mistura’s efforts to secure local ceasefires have stumbled over this fundamental divide at the Security Council.
But the shock of the Paris Attacks might have given diplomats the space they need to start talks anew. In Vienna this weekend, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov seemed to agree on the outlines of a plan for political transition in Syria.
It sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition groups. Lavrov said the Syrian government already had put forward its representatives, with the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to begin immediate work on determining who should sit at the table as part of the opposition team.
Within six months, the negotiations between the Syrian sides are to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian” transitional government that would set a schedule for drafting a new constitution and holding a free and fair U.N.-supervised election within 18 months, according to a joint statement released by the United Nations on behalf of the 19 parties to the talks.
There are obviously many holes in this idea that need to be filled: including the precise role of Assad in this process and figuring out which rebel groups deserve inclusion and which must be excluded, among many other important questions. But this statement in Vienna is arguably the most tangible step toward an the international diplomatic peace plan in years.
And the fact that Russia and the USA have presented this plan jointly vastly increases its prospects for success. When the Security Council has been unified on Syria, progress has been made. In September 2013, the Security Council coalesced around a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons in the war, and deployed an inspection team from the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to locate and destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons stockpiles. Even though the war drags on, the plan was a success–most of the the most horrible weapons were destroyed.
What made that moment of unity possible was the specter of a horrible chemical weapons attack in the town of Ghouta, that killed as many as 1,100 people, including many children. The scenes captured by cell phone video of lifeless tiny bodies shocked the conscience of the world. The USA even considered a military intervention against the Assad regime, something it hadn’t before.
The Paris attack combined with the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt, may have been the exogenous shocks that diplomats needed to get back to the negotiating table. Success of this new round of diplomacy is far from assured. But the fact that Russia and the USA are credibly talking about a peace plan is one small sign of hope that some measure of progress may come from this horrible tragedy in Paris.