Syrian ‘peace talks’ are all part of the war
Both sides are using the meetings in Montreux to declare new military goals rather than a ceasefire
So that’s it. There were, we now know, secret talks with the Iranians to bring them to the Syrian peace table but they failed. The war is not over. Iranian troops, active across Syria as “advisers”, will continue to fight; their proxies will continue to die.
Somehow, Ban Ki-moon, the ultra-cautious UN chief, managed to blow it. Having cornered Javad Zarif, the reformist Iranian foreign minister, in New York on Sunday, he revealed his hand too early. He tried to bind the Iranians to a position that they were unhappy to admit to publicly, and scared them off. The Iranians would never abandon their protégé, President Assad, just like that, they said, as Mr Ban thought they might. And so empty lies their seat in Montreux, where the first Syrian peace talks actually to feature Syrians will begin today. Without Tehran, the only government that has power over the Assad regime, there is no hope of peace, and the talks may as well not take place.
That is what people were saying, anyway, after the dust that is always thrown up when diplomats scurry and scheme settled yesterday. As with so many crises and U-turns in the world of diplomacy, it is a true conclusion about a fake row and a fake event. These aren’t peace talks; they wouldn’t have led to peace with or without the Iranians; when the two Syrian sides hold their first face-to-face meeting, supposedly on Friday, they will not even come close to discussing concessions that might end the conflict.
In fact, the peace talks have every sign of being a reversal of the Roman formula, si vis pacem, para bellum – if you seek peace, prepare for war. Both sides and their sponsors are using the “peace” talks to declare new war goals and seek fresh backing. They are a military advertising campaign. That is why the talks have been preceded not by a ceasefire, nor by last-minute efforts to establish clear zones of control on the ground, but by redoubled fighting on new fronts.
Since January, a new battle has been under way. The most important front has been in the north where, as we report, Saudi Arabia and the US have created, supplied and organised a new coalition, ostensibly secular or moderate Islamist, to try to reclaim ground from the head-choppers of Isis, the al-Qaeda branch that grew out of its most gruesome elements in neighbouring Iraq. This “moderate” group, fully supplied with political advisers and spin doctors as well as weapons, has re-sworn loyalty to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a brand which had all but disappeared from popular discourse until a few weeks ago, supplanted in the Syrian mind by Islamists allied to the ideals of al-Qaeda.
This new group is fully represented by the Syrian opposition in Switzerland: the FSA remains officially the armed wing of the Syrian National Coalition, which will line up opposite Mr Assad’s foreign minister today. Keep your eyes on the new alliance. It is no coincidence that its assault has begun in the run-up to Geneva, accompanied with a choreographed set of leaks to news outlets re-emphasising the view of the West that the battle against Isis and the fight against the Assad regime are one and the same.
We have been reminded, through fresh reports, of the regime’s astonishing crimes. We have been reminded of its long record of co-operating with al-Qaeda. We have been reminded that a bulk of fighters, almost certainly representing the majority of the population, oppose not only the regime but also militant Islamism. This is not just an attempt to “delegitimise” Assad in the eyes of Russia and Iran in the run-up to Montreux, it is an attempt to re-legitimise the opposition to its Western backers.
The Saudis are on board, and for the Americans it is a useful experiment. A reunified opposition, which American politicians are not embarrassed to be seen in public with, provides new opportunities for the US to get behind a side it still wants to win. There has been a lot of talk that the West has given up and is now reluctantly accepting that Assad will stay. Again, this is a correct answer to the wrong question. After the aborted intervention of September, when Mr Obama held back from direct military action, the US has been forced to accept that neither American diplomacy nor American military might will drive the regime out.
Contrary to critics on both Right and Left, there is nothing to be ashamed of in this: the war simply matters more to Iran than America, and Iran has stated openly that it will up the ante as long as necessary. For Mr Obama, the Syrian light is not worth the candle. But Syria is no longer the question. Iran is, and a renegotiated relationship with Tehran is the goal in the Middle East.
The nuclear programme was the easy bit, it turned out. The nuclear brief lies with comparatively open politicians such as President Hassan Rouhani and Mr Zarif. They can be treated with soft hands. The Syrian brief, though, lies with the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the al-Quds force. It has to be made to see that to fight Saudi Arabia and America is to bleed slowly, until a new dispensation, which will guarantee both Iranian and Saudi core interests, can be negotiated.
War and peace: the twin track. That is the strategy with Iran, and if Iran blinks, Assad will be gone. It is not a strategy that will necessarily work, but it is the only one the West has. It may one day bring peace to Syria, but a lot of people will die first. The delegations, meanwhile, will have a nice breather in Switzerland.