The Geneva Peace Talks on Syria and the Kurds
By Kamran Matin, 12/12/2016
Syria’s catastrophic civil war has entered its sixth year. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have lost their lives or been injured and millions more displaced. The country’s infrastructure is in ruin and its social fabric has disintegrated. And yet, all attempts at a peaceful resolution of the conflict have so far failed.
In fact, the prospects of a negotiated peace appear even more remote since it might be argued that following recent victories in East Aleppo the Assad regime might be less interested in a negotiated peace.
However, these victories, as significant as they might be, cannot possibly lead to a return to the pre-2011 situation restoring the Ba’ath regime’s effective control over the whole of Syria’s population and territory.
Given the depth of enmity that separates the government and a large portion of the Syrian population, the scale of Syrian state’s resources, and the size and number of the opposition groups and their foreign backers, any long lasting peace could only be achieved through some form of peace process. This is also the general lesson of the past cases of civil wars across the world.
As we all know there have been many peace initiatives and actual negotiations over the past five years or so. From the first peace proposal by the Arab League in November 2011 to the Geneva III peace conference in February 2016, there have been at least thirteen peace talks and ceasefire initiatives but none of them has been successful in terms of its own stated goals.
Here I don’t have time and space to consider the structural and conjunctural reasons for the failure of the previous peace negotiations. Rather, I want to focus on one counterintuitive feature that all previous peace talks have had in common, namely, the exclusion of the Kurds and their main political parties and representatives.
The main reason for the consistent exclusion of the Kurds from various peace initiatives is well known: Turkey’s open diplomatic and geostrategic blackmailing of the UN and western powers involved in the peace initiatives. Unfortunately, thus far both the UN special envoy for Syria and the US and its coalition partners have succumbed to Turkey’s pressures.
The fact that the exclusion of the Kurds is detrimental to the peace process is obvious: no conflict can possibly be resolved when a major party to that conflict is absent from the negotiating table.
But rather than elaborating on the negative impact of the Kurds’ exclusion from Geneva peace talks and previous peace initiatives I’d like to argue what positive impact their inclusion might have on any future peace talks.
Most peace initiatives to end civil wars face two main challenges: convincing the combatants to accept and implement a peace settlement; and designing credible guarantees on the terms of the agreement.
Academic research shows that the second element, that is, implementation guarantees, are actually the more important element and often more difficult to address not least because they need external assistance.
Given the complexity of the Syrian civil war, the multiplicity of combatant groups and the number of external states with a stake in the conflict a conventional sequential approach to these two elements is likely to be rather difficult.
In other words, belligerent parties are unlikely to agree on a peace settlement before a clear mechanism of implementation is developed. And no implementation mechanism will be developed or seen as credible by all sides unless a peace settlement is clarified and agreed upon.
The logical question of this circumstance is that in Syria’s case the two stages of the peace process, that is, peace settlement and implementation guarantees, have to be combined into a single process.
This would be similar to the basic framework of the successful negotiations between Iran and P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear project according to which all parties agreed that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed upon’.
So, the question is how exactly can the presence of the Kurds in the Geneva peace talks or any other future peace initiative facilitate this process?
In my opinion the answer primarily lies in the basic political vision for a future Syria that Syrian Kurds offer; a vision that is now being practically implemented in large parts of Northern Syria through the political framework of the ‘Democratic Federal System of Rojava – Northern Syria’.
The democratic federal system that Syrian Kurds in close collaboration and consultation with other ethno-cultural communities inhabiting Rojava have developed is marked by four main features: decentralisation of power, formal recognition of Syria’s ethno-religions diversity, gender equality, and bottom-up, local self-administration.
This model of governance therefore enshrines democracy at political, cultural, societal, and gender levels. As such democratic federalism stands in stark contrast to Syria’s current unitary, centralised, and ethnicised state which is by definition politically undemocratic, culturally repressive, and administratively over-centralised. More importantly, these features are arguably the root causes of not only the current tragic conflict in Syria but also of the systemic crisis and unprecedented levels of violence that have engulfed much of the Middle East.
Now, to return to the original question why this vision for Syria’s future can enhance the prospects of a peace settlement?
It seems to me that it can do so because the Kurdish model of democratic federalism addresses the main concerns of all sides through a structural devolution of power to different regions and districts of varying territorial scale. And perhaps more importantly it minimises the medium and long-term role of external actors in relation to the implementation of the peace settlement.
This is crucial because arguably the main reason for the failure of the previous peace efforts has been not just the vagueness of the substantive content of the proposals for the future shape of Syria as a political entity but also lack of effective and credible implementation guarantees. Such guarantees have been very difficult to provide precisely because the potential external guarantors, i.e. the majority of the foreign and regional backers of the Syrian regime and different opposition groups, have rather divergent interests and aims and hence are unlikely to commit to any concrete mechanism of implementation before maximising their strategic gains. This latter circumstance has been the primary reason for the failure of previous peace initiatives and the continuation of the conflict.
By developing and implementing a de-centralised form of self-administration based on councils of varying scales culminating at cantons, different ethno-religious and linguistic communities inhabiting different parts of Syria are empowered to run their own affairs through local and regional political and administrative structures that have high levels of autonomy but remain part of a radically democratised Syria as a sovereign and united, but not unitary, state.
Such a system therefore immediately removes two major fear factors that many observers have identified as the main reasons for the continuation of the conflict: the Alawite community’s fear of being subject to a Sunni majoritarian rule that can easily degenerate into a majoritarian despotism repressive of cultural and national diversity as the examples of Turkey, Iran, and, post-2003 Iraq, clearly shows.
And equally importantly, it also minimises the fear of the Sunni majority of a return to the Ba’athist form of a brutal and arbitrary form of Alawite minoritarian autocracy.
Clearly this process is not entirely self-driven and a degree of international monitoring and assistance is required especially at the early stages. But this is likely to be minimised since under the democratic federalist model the scope and practical task of implementation itself are sub-divided and delegated to the actual stake-holders.
In short, Rojava’s experience of democratic federalism and its exemplary practice of peaceful inter-ethnic coexistence and popular self-governance can bring to the negotiating table precisely those substantive ideas and inspirations that have so far been absent from the attempted peace initiatives.
For this to happen European Parliament, other EU organs, and influential western states ought to take necessary steps to ensure the genuine representation of Syrian Kurds and their legitimate political representatives in any future peace talks on Syria.