First Item at the Syria Talks: Saving Civilians' Lives

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From left, Planet Syria activists wear masks depicting world leaders: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. President Barack Obama, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The activists were serving a "siege soup" at the start of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva on January 29. Planet Syria, a network of over 100 nonviolent groups inside Syria, has demanded that the Assad regime "break the sieges, stop the bombs and free the prisoners." Denis Balibouse/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

A consistent theme I have hammered home for years has been that the protection of civilians in Syria is the sole portal through which progress toward peace and political transition can be achieved.

The Kremlin has and continues to regard this issue with contempt—under its current management, it sees widespread civilian terror, death and displacement as manageable and acceptable costs of doing business.

Perhaps more damaging, the protection of civilians inside Syria has been a matter of operational indifference to the Obama administration. Yes, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has spoken out forcefully and eloquently. Still, not a single Syrian inside Syria has been afforded any protection at all by the United States from the cruel depredations of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. Is change now on the horizon?

In his recent report to the U.N .Security Council, Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura made the key point plainly and accurately in calling on all parties to end sieges and other forms of assaults on civilian populations:

These are neither CBMs [confidence-building measures], nor are they preconditions. They are crucial signals to the people of Syria that this time around "peace talks" will make a difference to their lives. For the purposes of our process a CBM will be an action by one side in the direction of the other.

Whereas, what I am now asking for is acts of goodwill which demonstrate seriousness about this process. The success of Syrian and non-Syrian actors in meeting this minimum, but significant, step will be a small indication as to whether the talks stand a chance to be meaningful for those who suffer on the ground—not just another gathering in Geneva.

The "crucial signals to the people of Syria" to which de Mistura refers are not merely hints of a better future—a future free of barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass terror and ubiquitous torture. Rather, they are essential political enablers. Without them there can be no meaningful diplomatic process.

Imagine for a moment full agreement on what has proved to be a thorny issue: the precise composition of the opposition's delegation to the peace talks in Geneva. How could such a delegation negotiate with credibility, authority and legitimacy while its constituency is being subjected deliberately to assaults falling easily within the parameters of total war and collective punishment?

Even if one can imagine unanimous agreement on a delegation's composition, can there be any doubt that this delegation's legitimacy inside Syria, among Syrians, will not be automatic and will have to be earned?

And how is this possible if attacks on civilians—overwhelmingly (though far from exclusively) the responsibility of the Assad regime—do not stop or subside significantly before the start of peace talks?

It is understandable that the appetite of the regime and its enablers to bring to a halt the war crimes and crimes against humanity is well under control. Putting civilians in the bull's-eye has been at the heart of the Assad regime's political survival strategy.

Why would it wish now to take steps that would have the effect of enhancing the legitimacy of an opposition delegation to the peace talks? Has the regime signaled its acceptance of the 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué terms of reference? Has it demonstrated any interest at all in political transition? Or is it riding high on the wings of a Russian air campaign?

It may well be that elements of the Syrian Arab Republic government and army—as distinct from a "regime" consisting of an extended family and its paid enforcers—take a different view entirely from that of Assad and are prepared in principle to halt the crime wave and give space for genuine negotiations within the 2012 Geneva framework.

If such elements exist, surely they will need the encouragement and protection of Moscow and Tehran to prevail. Otherwise, they and their families will be eliminated by the same political mafia that has shredded Syria's unity and made the country safe for an ersatz "caliph" and his plundering band of thieves, rapists and terrorists.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is eager for the talks to begin. His heart is in the right place. And God knows it is far easier to lean on and pressure Syrian opposition figures to show up in Geneva on an appointed date and a designated time than it is to persuade Russia and Iran to get their client out of the business of mass terror and collective punishment.

Do they even want to do so? If they do not, then how is a serious peace process possible? And if it is not possible, then what is the point of subjecting regime opponents to that which they experienced two years ago in Geneva: a contemptuous regime that had actually expanded attacks on civilian population centers in the immediate wake of agreeing to give up chemical weapons?

The Obama administration has demonstrated aptitude and skill in dealing with adversaries of the United States, as Cubans and Iranians will readily testify. It is been less adept at times in respecting and taking into account the politics of friends and partners.

No doubt it would like to see a Syrian opposition delegation acting creatively and flexibly in pursuit of a political transition agreement that can bring peace, stability, reconciliation and reconstruction to a country currently serving as the epicenter of Middle Eastern chaos.

If this is what the administration actually wants, it would do well to heed the words of de Mistura. Civilian protection is not an optional, nice-to-have feature at this juncture. It is the essential element for a serious diplomatic process—the coin of the realm and the definition of political progress in the Syrian context.

It is good that there has been some recent movement toward mitigating sieges. But it is insufficient, unless, of course, the objective is process for the sake of process and "just another gathering in Geneva." If that is all there is, then 2016 will be a bad year indeed for Syria, its neighbors, Europe and the United States.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.