Q&A: The Other Track Toward Syrian Peace

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The shoes of three Syrian migrants are laid on a railroad track to dry out after a long walk to a border crossing on the Greek and Macedonian border September 2, 2015 near Idomeni, Greece. (Win McNamee Getty Images)

Part 1 of a Q&A with Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute on Track 2 diplomacy and the Syrian situation (Part 2).


Read Part 2 of the Q&A here.

Last October, as the Iran nuclear negotiations began to bear fruit, the powers that had been involved since 2012 in the on-and-off “Geneva process” of Syria negotiations tried to restart the process, this time with Iran openly a party.The talks began in late January of this year; they were almost immediately suspended, then revived. Behind this fragile process, for several years, there have been Track 2 discussions taking place among the parties to the Syrian conflict. Track 2 refers to private, usually confidential talks among parties, experts, and others; Track 1.5 indicates the presence of sitting government officials; while Track 1 refers to formal negotiations of the traditional kind, dominated by governments.

The Track 2 phenomenon originated in the coldest years of the Cold War and blossomed with the growth of civil society since 1989. It is now a fixture of international diplomacy and conflict resolution. 

Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute is a veteran practitioner of such talks and is closely involved in them on both Syria and Iraq, from which she recently returned. Carnegie Corporation visiting media fellow Scott Malcomson reached her at her home in Beirut to discuss the state of Track 2. (Part 1 of 2)

How does your current Track 2 project fit into the shifting political landscape of the Middle East?

In October 2012 we started the Middle East Dialogue, a Track 1.5 initiative designed to bring people from the region together to discuss the emerging political and security dynamics in the Middle East. The Dialogue is moderated by two people from the region. The meetings themselves are nearly always held in the region. The driving assumption was that the region was undergoing a historical transformation, and there was a need for a regional space where you could gather officials, former officials who still had influence, and experts to map the changing political landscape. 

There was a need for a regional space where you could gather officials, former officials who still had influence, and experts to map the changing political landscape.
— Randa Slim

We decided that the main case study for this regional discussion would be the Syrian conflict, because the Syrian conflict was a fault line in the emerging regional order. Time has proved this right, because the future of the Levant now clearly depends on how the conflict in Syria and Iraq unfolds and is eventually settled. So we have kept a dual focus in the Middle East Dialogue: working on the Syrian conflict, but always also taking a step back for a larger look at how the whole region is evolving—the counter-revolutions, the fate of the Islamic movements, trends in youth politics, and intraregional rivalries.

What we are looking at most recently are the underpinnings and elements of a new regional security architecture—learning from the experiences of Europe and Asia, and discussing how a regional security architecture might develop in the Middle East.

Our effort, involving both current and former government officials, as well as senior experts, insisted from the start that Iran must be involved alongside other regional and international powers. There are other Track 2s that have focused on the intra-Syrian, and more specifically the intra-opposition, discussions. The part of our deliberations that is focused on Syria addresses only the regional dimensions of the conflict in Syria and their implications for conflict resolution efforts.

Our approach has been that, while the conflict is at heart a local one, with Syrians calling for a change in the relationship between government and the governed, over time other elements have become prominent as regional and other powers have supported proxies within Syria. The regional dynamics have now become as important as the local dynamics. In terms of conflict resolution, these dynamics present both an obstacle to, and an opportunity for, conflict resolution. On one hand, local actors become over time beholden to outside patrons and their interests, complicating the negotiations among local stakeholders. On the other hand, outside patrons, when they want to, can exert pressure and influence on local actors to de-escalate conflict and commit to a serious negotiation process. At this point, the Syrian regime is dependent on Russia and Iran, while the opposition forces are dependent primarily on Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and on Qatar, Jordan, and the United States secondarily.

The calculus of outside powers seems now to lead simultaneously toward and away from the Geneva process. How do you see the possibilities for a shift toward peace?

Over the past few months, there has clearly been more momentum toward reaching a political settlement. This momentum has yet to translate into actionable behavior on the ground, especially given the recent escalation by the Syrian regime backed by its regional and international patrons. Instead, we are witnessing Assad and his allies in a race with time, trying to create faits accomplis on the ground in order to constrain the range of military and political options that will be presented to the next U.S. president.

There is general agreement that the conflict can only be resolved through negotiation and there is agreement on the basic architecture of a solution. This architecture consists of convening UN-sponsored negotiations between Syrian government and opposition representatives; setting a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution; holding free and fair elections; and calling a UN-led ceasefire, excluding agreed-upon terrorist groups, to come into effect upon the launch of the transitional period. All parties concerned understand that the timetable for this architecture outlined in the November 2015 Vienna II statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) is more aspirational than practical. Coming out of Vienna, the principal remaining divide is over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. While in 2014 the opposition factions were insisting that Assad had to leave at the beginning of a transition period, I think now there is a flexibility about the timing of his departure once this transitional period is launched. There is, however, no option of the opposition agreeing to any process that could end in Assad remaining in power. To date, we have not seen evidence that Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s principal enablers, are willing and able to force Assad to make serious concessions at the negotiation table.

In what ways do Track 2 processes enable parties to look beyond the short term of Track 1 talks?

In our Middle East Dialogue, one of the discussion topics has been how to preserve a pluralistic Syria, with majority rule but with strong guarantees for minorities—and then to examine what those guarantees are, how those guarantees would work, and who the guarantors are. Track 2 provides a way to think through such issues before the Track 1 dialogues have reached that stage—so when the public process does reach that point, the intellectual ground has been prepared and the chances of seizing the political moment are increased.

At the last meeting of the Middle East Dialogue, participants were discussing what “a happy Middle East” would look like: what kind of new intraregional relations could exist; what new cooperative frameworks should be put in place; and what new regional institutions must be established. We were thinking outside the box, imagining what a positive future in the region could look like. This particular meeting involved Turks, Iranians, Saudis, Emiratis, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Egyptians along with Russians, Americans, and Chinese. Given the current intraregional tensions, I cannot imagine an official meeting engaging in this type of brainstorming, primarily because existing relational patterns take on an institutional character that takes a long time to change. 

Scott Malcomson is a Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York, specializing in international affairs.  He is the author of Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and contributors, not necessarily of the Corporation. Twitter: @smalcomson