Searching for peace
The New York Times said the following in an editorial:
Few peace conferences have been set up amid the unrelenting pessimism that surrounds the talks involving Syria that open Wednesday in Switzerland. But while a peace agreement is unlikely to be reached anytime soon, the meeting can still produce useful results. That has to be the approach of the conveners, including the United States, Russia and the United Nations. Crucial early goals should include a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to millions of desperate civilians.
There were some shaky moments before the conference, which took months to arrange, even got started, not least when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a last-minute invitation for Iran to attend, then rescinded it after strong objections from the U.S.; from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival; and from the Syrian opposition. The United States has said that Iran could not participate without publicly accepting a 2012 communiqué that is the basis of the conference and stipulates that the goal is a transitional administration by “mutual consent” of the Assad government and the opposition.
In the view of the United States, this means that President Bashar Assad would be replaced, although Assad government officials and his Alawite sect could be part of the new structure. Iran has refused to accept any preconditions.
Just how the invitation from the United Nations was fumbled is unclear, but it is unfortunate that some diplomatic solution could not have been found to include Iran, which along with Russia is Syria’s main ally, providing Assad with arms and other military support. In an interview with The New York Times and Time magazine last month, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Iran would not be an impediment to a political settlement.
“We have every interest in helping the process in a peaceful direction,” he said. “We are satisfied, totally satisfied, convinced that there is no military solution in Syria and that there is a need to find a political solution in Syria.”
The deaths of thousands of civilians have not persuaded Russia and Iran to break with Assad or at least pressure him to end the slaughter and cruelty against civilians. Iran might have ensured itself a seat at the peace conference if it had promised to suspend arms deliveries while negotiations were under way or persuaded Assad to call a cease-fire. And there are good reasons for Russia and Iran to play a constructive role. The civil war has drawn affiliates of al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists to the Syrian battlefield, and these could eventually be a threat to Shiite-led Iran as well as Russia, which is fighting extremists in the Caucasus and worrying about attacks during the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month.
Zarif acknowledged this problem generally, asserting that “the continuation of this tragedy in Syria can only provide the best breeding ground for extremists who use this basically as a justification, as a recruiting climate, in order to wage the same type of activity in other parts of this region.”
The peace conference is already providing a service by refocusing attention on the savagery of the war, now in its third year. On Monday, a team of legal and forensic experts commissioned by the government of Qatar, a main sponsor of the Syrian opposition, said that thousands of photographs — apparently smuggled out of Syria by a defecting military police photographer — showed scarred, emaciated corpses that offered “direct evidence” of mass torture by Syrian government forces.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also accused opposition forces, as well as the government, of human rights abuses. In all, more than 100,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed in the war, many by government forces that have bombed cities and deprived civilians of food and other essential needs. It is well past time to say “enough” to more civilian deaths — and exactly the right time for a cease-fire and secure deliveries of humanitarian supplies.