Who’s to blame for failed Syrian peace talks, and what’s next?


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JEFFREY BROWN: And so with no deal achieved and without a firm agreement to meet again, what are the prospects for ending a civil war that has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives and displaced millions?

We turn again to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Joshua Landis, let me start with you. What do you take from this first round of talks?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think many people were expecting — were expecting that the United States would be willing to take half a loaf, that it would be willing to compromise to the point of not asking for regime change in Syria in order to get, perhaps, some access to starving people, to victims inside Syria, and perhaps the beginnings of a cease-fire, in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrians and the big outflow of refugees that risks to bring down and trouble neighboring states.

But the U.S. stuck to its guns and said that there has to be regime change in Syria. As soon as the Assad regime sensed this and heard the opening speech, it began to take away offers of cease-fire access to humanitarian agencies. And the conversation became one of accusation, counteraccusation, very heated.

And we haven’t seen any progress. And we have seen stalling on chemical weapons. I think that the regime went to Geneva, I believe — the Syrian regime — believing that it could — that the United States was beginning to get worried about the jihadist problem and wouldn’t — would stake a deal somehow with the Assad regime. And that didn’t happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew, what do you take from it? And the very fact of meeting, even symbolically, does that have any importance?

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes, it does. It got the diplomatic ball rolling.

Many people predicted that the opposition would collapse. That didn’t happen. They didn’t end up with getting access. And the reason why I think the U.S. stuck to its guns is because this conference was about transition. It was never going to be about — a conference about why the Assad regime should be doing what it’s obligated to do under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.

Access of humanitarian goods and evacuation of civilians are required there. It’s about a transition. Russia is on board with that. And so, actually, at the end of the week, I think the opposition, it’s a tactical victory, at least in the short-term.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in addition to transition, there’s the humanitarian crisis going on. We mentioned Homs, for example. What is the holdup there with getting something?

ANDREW TABLER: The regime will not allow supplies through their lines into Homs.

Now, in Homs, the rebels there are actually more reliable. There is better command-and-control. The long siege there has pushed them together and they are also better connected with the Syrian National Coalition.

So, it was a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, it was missed. And we will have to see if the regime comes back to the negotiating table on February 10.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joshua Landis, do you — are things like humanitarian — the humanitarian crisis, was that on the table there? Did it make any headway?

JOSHUA LANDIS: It didn’t make any headway. It was on the able, but the regime is trying to make a deal. And it didn’t sense that there was a deal, and so it took its offer of aid off the table.

And we’re back to a war of attrition here. And I have talked to a number of people in Washington and Paris about this. And they feel that Assad is at his acme, his greatest, strongest point here, because he has had a number of successes militarily. The rebels are in chaos.

But they believe that with time the rebels will get a new command structure that they are getting together, they are going to get more help, and that the minority regime behind Assad, the Alawites, Christians, other minorities, are only about 20 percent of the Syrian population.

They can be attrited. And their young men will be killed off eventually, and that in a year’s time or perhaps even two, the balance of power will be very different and this regime will begin to collapse. And then the conversation will change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Tabler, what about the reports that Syria is so far behind on the timetable to give up its poison gas stocks?

ANDREW TABLER: Right. It has only handed over about 4 percent of initial shipment of 500 tons, but not only that. Syria is now refusing to physically destroy its chemical weapons facilities and said they wanted to make it inaccessible, meaning like lock up the front doors, weld it, which is easily reversed.

The U.S. has come out very strongly. And remember that the Geneva communique on which the talks had been going on be there, the only place that is enshrined inside the United Nations is in the U.N. Security Council 2118 that deals with the chemical weapons issue. So they’re actually linked in there.

And so I think now we’re going to be going back to the Security Council concerning chemical weapons and to the humanitarian access.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this tied to what Joshua Landis was talking about, that Assad feeling himself still very powerful?

ANDREW TABLER: Assad feels very powerful, particularly in the Western part of the country.

But what is interesting is Assad, despite being so powerful, is saying, I’m not strong enough to allow these convoys of these chemical weapons and these chemical agents through the Qalamoun area out to the coast. He’s demanding more and more equipment, which is interesting. If he is so strong in the west, why demand so much equipment?

Actually, the international community believes they have provided sufficient equipment. So does the OPCW. And that led to the statements we have seen from the United States the last two days.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Joshua Landis, do you expect the Syrian government to go back to the table on February 10? Are there some areas, even limited, where there might be some progress?

JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t think they want to talk about regime change.

And, you know, the message from Geneva was, the most important thing is that Assad has to step down, we need regime changes here. Assad is not going to step down. And this is going to be done over his dead body. And that’s — that’s the — you know, this is what this civil war is about. And that is where we are once again.

He thought there was an opening for — that the West was falling out of love with the Syrian opposition, they’re worried about the jihadists, they’re willing to talk about Assad remaining. As you remember, the ex-head of CIA Hayden had said, well, maybe Assad is better than the opposition.

And Ryan Crocker, important ambassador and spokesperson for the State Department, now retired, had said the same thing roughly, that he expects Assad to win. So Assad I think had begun to feel that perhaps there was a changing mood in the West. He discovered in Geneva there is no change in the West. Kerry was very dramatic. This is about regime change. He said that Assad is the reason for the jihadists there, he is the magnet, and until he goes, jihadists will not go.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

JOSHUA LANDIS: And that was his assertion.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask very briefly, Andrew, are you as pessimistic?

ANDREW TABLER: I’m pessimistic in terms of — for relieving the suffering on the ground. But I think it’s no mistake President Obama talked about Syria three times in the State of the Union speech. He talked about — surprisingly, about supporting the moderate rebels.

Dealing with extremism in Syria is not just as simple as flipping back the Assad regime. It has to involve working with the opposition as well, particularly the moderate parts of it that we can work with.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, thanks again.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Pleasure.

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