Finding a political solution is challenging while the Trump administration is weighing its approach to the war
By Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ March 2, 2017
GENEVA—Peace talks between Syria’s regime and opposition face a formidable obstacle: Until President Donald Trump’s administration decides how to approach the six-year war, it makes little sense for anyone to compromise.
“It’s very difficult to reach any political solution if there is not a positive, active and serious role of the U.S.A.,” said Nasr Alhariri, head of the opposition delegation to the current round of talks now under way in Geneva.
After all, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime holds out hope that Mr. Trump’s eagerness to mend fences with Russia will lead Washington to further curtail support for the rebels.
The mostly Sunni opposition, meanwhile, counts on Mr. Trump’s desire to roll back Iran, Mr. Assad’s key backer that has flooded the country with Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and beyond and that also backs Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Amid conflicting signals from Washington on what the actual policy toward Syria will be and when it will be formulated, both sides are for now united in wooing Mr. Trump.
“Personally I was very glad about the victory of Mr. Trump and the Republicans,” said Mohammed Aloush, chief of the Islamist rebel group Army of Islam. “I believe they have the ability to bring change. Mr. Trump has stated that he will limit the role of Iran and the Syrian revolution is the largest test for limiting Iran and for pushing it back to its own borders, away from Beirut, away from San’a and away from Damascus.”
Mr. Assad, meanwhile, told Yahoo News last month that he would welcome American participation in the fight against terrorism in Syria if it is done in coordination with his government. He even appeared to support Mr. Trump’s controversial travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries including Syria.
While former President Barack Obama’s administration micromanaged the largely fruitless Syrian peace process, with Secretary of State John Kerry personally engaging in the minutiae of negotiations, the Trump administration has so far stayed aloof. It sent only the U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan to talks in Astana in late January. The U.S. special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney attended the first days of the Geneva talks as an observer, and the American role here so far has been largely limited to taking notes—leaving the playing field to the Russians, diplomats say.
A review of the U.S. campaign against Islamic State ordered by the White House is expected to bring more clarity about the overall American approach to Syria in coming weeks. “The U.S. remains committed to any process that can result in a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, which can bring about a more representative, peaceful, and united Syria, free of terrorism and violent extremism,” a State Department official said.
Meanwhile, the fact that Russia has turned into the principal power broker of the Syrian conflict has become largely accepted by the Syrian opposition. Rebel negotiators say they have detected a new desire by Moscow to find a political resolution now that the regime’s strategic objective of seizing the rebel-held half of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city, has been achieved.
“We know that Iran is our enemy and that the Shiite militias that try to change the demographics of Syria are our enemy. I don’t think that Russia is OK with that and, at the end of the day, the Russians are not sectarian and want to end the war at the negotiating table,” said Hind Kabawat, a member of the opposition delegation in Geneva. “If the Russians can force the regime to sit down and talk transition of power, then why not have the Russians as our partners?”
The question, however, is to what extent can Moscow actually control the behavior of the Assad regime—especially if the U.S. remains disengaged.
Immediately after the Astana talks, Syrian opposition leaders and commanders were enthusiastic about local cease-fire deals negotiated with Moscow. Since then, however, many of these agreements collapsed, often because Iranian-backed Shiite militias refused to honor them.
“The Russians have a lack of ability to deliver because the regime has a lack of ability to rein in these militias,” said Free Syrian Army Maj. Issam el-Reyes, a military commander in southern Syria and an adviser to the opposition’s Geneva delegation.
That’s why even Moscow is troubled by the low level of American involvement in the Syrian peace process.
“The influence of Russia is not limitless on either side of the conflict, be it the government or the opposition,” said Yelena Suponina, Middle East specialist at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, a state-run think tank in Moscow. “To achieve anything, we need to cooperate with the Americans, and I think, on their part, they could have gotten up to speed a bit faster. We have heard good rhetoric from Trump, but so far have seen no concrete actions.”
Bassma Kodmani, a member of the opposition’s negotiating team, put in differently.
“Bashar, backed by Iran, is resisting Russian pressures. And the Russians alone cannot fight the Iranians because they have roughly the same strength,” she explained. “That’s where the absence of America becomes very problematic.”