Jessica T. Mathews writes: In August 2012, not long after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped down as the international community’s special envoy on Syria, he and I shared a coffee break between airplane flights. Speaking with deep sadness, this consummate international negotiator said he’d never worked harder on a problem with less to show for it. Since then, the widely respected former Algerian foreign minister and international civil servant Lakhdar Brahimi has done the same, with the same result.
What Annan and Brahimi tried to do through a series of meetings in Geneva was to weave together enough threads of political agreement to form the basis for a cease-fire. The problem was that when one side had brought off recent military success, it felt optimistic enough to believe it could fight to victory and was uninterested in making political concessions. Even had the fighters themselves come close to equal levels of exhaustion and suffering, half a dozen powers that were fueling the war by proxy could and did ensure that a stable military equilibrium was never reached. Those powers included Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, which were backing Assad, and Saudi Arabia, various Gulf States, and the US, which were backing the opposition. Despite enormous efforts, the Geneva talks failed.
What’s different now is that the two most important players, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, share an urgent interest in defeating ISIS before the chaos it is sowing reaches their own borders. According to a leading expert on the Syrian conflict, this might make it possible for the Assad regime and the non-jihadi opposition to take a highly unusual step. Yezid Sayigh — my colleague at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut — argues that the time is ripe for both the Assad regime and the non-jihadi opposition groups to execute comprehensive (that is, not local), unilateral truces, undertaken separately but in parallel.
For this to take place, no formal agreement would be necessary or indeed possible. No agreement-blocking preconditions would be considered, just two clean cease-fires. Sayigh’s insight is that both sides currently share a balance of weakness. Both need a respite from fighting each other to enable them to concentrate their forces on preventing ISIS from winning what could be game-changing military victories. [Continue reading…]