Syria Talks: Is Jaw Jaw Better Than War War?

Image Source: UN Live Web TV – Screen Capture

The opening of Geneva talks of a Syrian constitutional committee organized by the latest UN representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, brings to mind the famous adage attributed to Winston Churchill; “It is better to jaw jaw than to war war.” One hundred fifty Syrians from the government, opposition and civil society are meeting in the city of Calvin to work on a document that will form the basis of a future “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian” government.

Does the adage hold here? What are the chances for this meeting to succeed? The list of negatives is long. First, the convenor, the United Nations, has had three previous special representatives. All, including the former Secretary-General and Nobel Prize winner Kofi Annan have failed throughout the civil war. Second, although the meeting was supposed to include only Syrians with no outside interference, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are also in Geneva as well as the United States’ special representative for Syria. What was supposed to be an inclusive Syrian meeting has turned into a realpolitik gathering with most of the dominant powers in the region present, but they are not directly participating.

Third, there have been criticisms from those not at the table about the representatives from civil society. Complaints point to the lack of true representation; it took two years for the parties to agree on membership. As with all peace negotiations, it is difficult to identify true representatives of civil society. There are always the elite ready to participate, especially in some luxury hotel in Geneva. But the most egregious error is the failure to have the Kurds represented as an independent group. There are Kurds in several of the groups, but the Self Administration in Northern Syria/Rojava has not been formally represented.

Aside from these obvious negatives, two other factors stand out First, a meeting to discuss a future constitution cannot be realistic when violence continues. By having a meeting to work on a constitution before fighting has stopped is the wrong order. A temporary cease-fire has not been successful, and it is more and more evident that fighting on the Turkish-Syrian border continues. The expulsion of the Kurds and responsibility for ISIS prisoners remain unsolved problems. Discussing a future constitution implies a degree of stability on the ground that is far from evident. No road map for a peaceful transition is on the table for the moment.

The meeting seems to accept the continuing rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Peace experts tell us there can be no peace without justice. Can there be justice with Assad still in power? President Barack Obama said that a “red line” would be crossed if Assad used chemical weapons but then walked away from Syria. President Donald Trump initially toed the same line. We are way beyond that point. Schools and hospitals have been bombed by the government; these heinous acts are crimes of war and against humanity. Will Assad be brought to trial or does stability trump justice?

According to the U.S. special envoy, Mr. al-Assad’s administration, “is the legal government — even if you think it is a horrific, terrible and laden-with-war-crimes government.” It is disheartening to imagine recognizing Assad’s legitimacy.

Finally, Turkish forces have entered Syrian territory. Isn’t this an act of aggression that should be considered a threat to international peace and security? Instead of dealing with a future constitution, shouldn’t the United Nations be focusing on this fundamental violation of international law?

“We all understand that the constitutional committee itself will not bring a solution to the conflict,” Mr. Pedersen said. After over seven years of conflict and hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as millions displaced, the meeting in Geneva is the first meeting of the parties concerned. Is that reason enough to be optimistic?

The withdrawal of US troops on October 6 from northeastern Syria has not helped the situation. Assad, Russia and Turkey seem firmly in control of the region with the Kurds being sacrificed and the United States only interested in guarding oil reserves. So geopolitics has priority over any form of resolution of the Syrian conflict. Certainly any just resolution.

Churchill had a point, in principle. But “jaw jaw” can give a false image of progress toward an equitable solution. While not proposing to lock all the parties in an army base in the Midwest to force them to sign a provisional agreement to stop the fighting, one should not be optimistic about the Geneva talks. Constitutions are best written when violence ends. A monitored ceasefire along the Syrian-Turkish border should be the first step in lessening the violence. After that, a constitutional committee can work to reconstruct some form of stability, including justice for the victims. If jaw jaw is better than war war, it should never be at the expense of a peace without justice.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.