The statement earlier this month by the leader of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib that he was ready to negotiate a settlement with members of the Assad government, and the subsequent statement of Prime Minister al-Halqi expressing a similar will from the government side gave reason for hope. However, the now apparent inability of the National Coalition to unite in support of its leader’s statement, in a backdrop of new attacks on Aleppo, as well as on government and opposition installations in Damascus and elsewhere, throw the possibility of any direct peace talks back into doubt. That should not be allowed to happen. Instead, those with any degree of leverage with the Syrian government and the opposition should make clear that the Syrian parties cannot expect any support for their respective interests unless they sit down and talk to each other in earnest.
One positive thing that became evident during the short-lived spell of hope was that there can be broad international support for talks between the opposition and the government. The Russian Foreign Minister’s welcoming of Mr. Al-Khatib’s openness to dialogue should be reciprocated by those closer to the opposition, including the US, UK and France. There is always room for political maneuvering and relative positioning but this should be kept within limits, and should be firmly placed within a framework of talks between the Syrian parties themselves.
Iraq, in particular, should be kept in mind in all this, and the waste of lives and treasure that took place there should be avoided in Syria. In the event of a settlement, or while moving towards one, there should be no blanket demonization and persecution of Baath Party rank-and-file members, civil servants and other professionals. Politics excluded, Syria has been functioning better than many countries in the region in terms of public services and social cohesion, taking also into account that it is not particularly endowed in natural resources like most of its Arab neighbours are. A smooth transition would engage decent elements of the state machinery and would put emphasis on the continuity of public services and the state, with positive openings to those thus far excluded, rather than negative purges and summary replacements.
There are well-based allegations of war crimes committed by the Assad government, as well as by opposition forces. All these allegations should be duly investigated as soon as the situation on the ground allows it, and the culprits should be brought to justice, irrespective of who may have been patronizing them during the conflict. There should be no one-sided victors’ justice, if the situation in Syria is to stabilize for the long term, but responsibilities should be handed down impartially to those to whom they belong.
Responsibility lies with all sides, inside and outside Syria. Crunch time should not be allowed to drift any further, for the sake of the suffering Syrian population more than anything else.
Brussels, 24 February 2013