The Islamic State’s (ISIS) horrendous terror attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, preceded by a retaliatory bomb attack – also attributed to ISIS – last week on a Russian passenger aircraft in the Sinai Peninsula has finally brought together the opposing Western and regional powers in the Syrian conflict.
The Paris attack, targeting civilians in multiple locations, was nearly identical to the attack on Mumbai on November 26 2008 by Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-sponsored terror group. That attack may have established the blueprint for Paris attacks.
It also made evident an increased threat to United States and its interests abroad.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and diplomats representing 20 countries, including the EU, took part in the second round of Syria talks in Vienna on Saturday, November 14. The group recognized, for the first time, the imperative of joint military action against ISIS, or Da’esh, which now represents a global threat larger than removal of Bashar Assad. That both United States and Russia, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, put away their fundamental differences was a major gain. The Syrian government will also be part of this initiative.
The existence of over 1,200 jihadi and Islamist groups backed by external powers has made it impossible for Syrians to end the conflict themselves.
For this reason, participants in Vienna entrusted Jordan – a country especially vulnerable to attack by ISIS because of its common border with Syria – the task of “designating as terrorists” groups. Jordan will decide which groups, in addition to ISIS and al-Qaida, will be excluded from negotiations.
As former Indian ambassador to Syria, I can identify three areas where the cohesive international effort in Vienna made significant process: on a ceasefire, political transition and joint military strategy.
Ceasefire and transition
The timelines agreed to in Vienna call for a Syria-wide UN-administered ceasefire to be put in place by January 1 2016.
The plan calls for the United Nations to convene the Assad government representatives and the “designated” opposition groups to set up an inclusive nonsectarian transitional government to draft a new constitution. They will have six months to do their work.
Their external backers will ensure that the opposition groups hold to their commitments. Syria’s borders will be assured. And, unlike what happened in Iraq in 2003, its institutions – like the Ba’ath party – will be kept intact. By 2017, a free and fair UN-supervised election is to be held under the new constitution.
Assad’s role in a transitional government, and in the government that follows, remains a major point of difference. While all parties have committed that only the Syrian people should decide Assad’s future, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey insist that he have no role even in a transitional government. Russia remains steadfast in support of Assad’s role in the transition.
Notably, these difference were not allowed to overshadow the Vienna outcome. This is unlike earlier failed UN attempts which had excluded both Iran and Russia.
Without this coming together, we would have witnessed the continuation of a bizarre situation in which the two rejuvenated cold warriors stood on either side of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in Syria.
Humanitarian crisis is growing
Meanwhile, the growing scale of the humanitarian crisis has magnified urgency for a resolution. From 22 million in 2011, Syria’s population has fallen to 17 million. Of these, 13.5 million need urgent humanitarian assistance. And, 6.5 million are internally displaced. Most of the 4.18 million refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are now headed toward Europe.
Only an early commitment of funds for reconstruction of Syria, particularly its devastated infrastructure, will stem further refugee outflow and encourage others to return. The country needs to have working power and water lines, navigable roads and a regular supply of food and medicine.
Joint military strategy
The proposed joint military action will call for hard decisions regarding sending in ground troops and interoperability of the various forces. While French President Hollande has promised a “merciless” response, whether he will invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls an act of war on one an act of war on all, is to be seen.
President Obama, while taking his cue from Hollande, faces a similar decision, knowing that the decision on the war’s exit strategy will be out of his hands. The United States will have a new president in 2017.
At the same time, only the United States can ensure that regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia actively participate in the joint military action to show the world that it is a fight against ISIS and not Islam itself.
Address religious and social dimensions
The political process will remain incomplete without recognition that, at its heart, ISIS is an extreme, violent and retrograde idea of Islam. It can be marginalized, but not destroyed. The resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2011, after a gap of 30 years, illustrates how embers of old movements can reignite.
The US will have to promote parallel negotiations between all major Arab and Islamic countries, under the aegis of Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to address the religious and social dimensions of the Syrian war. The goal should be to ideologically defeat ISIS and all it stands for. Without the Islamic countries worldwide working in tandem, eschewing their divisive sectarian goals, the larger political process will remain stillborn.
In an impressive show of solidarity with the people of France, the international negotiators’ next meeting in December will be held in Paris.