Foreign ministers representing the primary external players in Syria’s conflict will gather in New York on Friday, and the stakes are high. In two meetings in Vienna spearheaded by the United States and Russia this fall, states backing President Bashar Assad’s regime and its primary, non-jihadist opponents agreed to push for a renewal of negotiations between the Syrian sides in January 2016 and set an ambitious timeline for those talks to achieve a national ceasefire and transition to “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance.”
Yet if this effort is to progress, the ministers convening in New York must first avoid sabotaging the diplomatic train whilst still in the station with squabbling over definitions of “opposition” and “terrorist.” Instead they should focus on key unanswered questions likely to eventually derail the process if left unaddressed. Here’s how:
Don’t squander the results from Riyadh.
It wasn’t perfect, but a conference hosted in the Saudi capital earlier this month produced a breakthrough toward addressing one of the key missing pieces necessary for a meaningful political process: a coherent body capable of credibly representing the opposition’s leading non-jihadist armed and political factions. In Riyadh, an unprecedented range of such factions joined in creating a committee charged with selecting a negotiating team, and released a joint statement outlining their commitment to a pluralistic Syrian future and conditional willingness to engage in the political process envisioned in Vienna.
Stumbling blocks remain: items listed as preconditions are unrealistic and would be better framed as required outcomes of the Vienna process; only two women were named to the 34-seat joint committee; and Ahrar al-Sham, one of the strongest armed groups attending, withdrew, complaining of inadequate representation allocated to armed groups and a failure to identify Syria’s identity as Islamic.
While steps by the opposition and its backers to address these issues would be welcome, those assembled in New York should view the results of Riyadh as providing the basis for opposition representation, in the event negotiations between Syrian parties proceed. This means setting aside disagreement over which groups should be deemed "terrorists"—a term Moscow has applied to some Riyadh attendees. The debate over defining "terrorists" is, as usual, subjective. At a bare minimum, the U.S. and fellow New York attendees should ensure that the “terrorist” label, already applied to the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, is not extended to any group that participated in the Riyadh conference or has otherwise shown itself open to engaging in political processes.
A major challenge yet to be addressed is how to incorporate Kurdish forces linked to the PKK within the Vienna framework; these currently control major swaths of northern Syria, and their political affiliate (the PYD) advocates a line independent (and critical) of both the regime and the mainstream armed opposition. Yet for now at least, the PYD leans more toward the former than the latter. It will be an essential part of any political resolution in Syria, but its place in negotiations should be distinct from that of the opposition—any attempt to accomplish otherwise will likely destroy the fragile intra-opposition consensus reached in Riyadh.
Get more serious about addressing the Assad question.
If Russia and the U.S. can't agree on whether Assad stays or goes, at least they can make progress in defining how that question will ultimately be addressed. Otherwise, Syrian-Syrian negotiations are virtually guaranteed to break down over this point—likely sooner rather than later. In the first two Vienna meetings, those assembled took a small step in this direction: calling for free, fair, UN-monitored elections open to all Syrians inside and outside the country. But that is insufficient. For elections to offer a credible means of addressing the Assad problem, state backers must explicitly address the timeline for presidential elections (the Vienna statements did not refer to the presidency); outline practical means of achieving the option of participation for all Syrians (including those displaced within and outside Syria); and help Syrians discuss forms of decentralization that would offer assurances of security and a high degree of local governance to the country’s regions, regardless of who presides in Damascus.
Deal with militant spoilers
For a national ceasefire to work, there must be a strategy for dealing with spoilers like IS and hardline elements within both the regime and opposition camps. But a particular obstacle is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is geographically integrated with the non-jihadi opposition in much of western Syria, listed and targeted as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Russia, and explicitly excluded from the hoped-for Vienna ceasefire. Nusra is easily capable of spoiling such a truce; it could do so via its own operations, or through its presence drawing regime or Russian fire that, assuming current practices of engagement continue, would also likely hit nearby civilians and rebels taking part in the political process.
Before they accelerate any push for such a ceasefire, the state backers on both sides need a viable plan to address Nusra’s spoiling potential. Such a plan would have to include a combination of achieving a level of buy-in among rebels participating in the process sufficient to deter Nusra from violating the truce’s terms, and a commitment by Moscow to prevent Russian, regime and allied forces from initiating attacks on Nusra positions within areas in which factions participating in the ceasefire are present.
The sense of urgency among some of those gathering in New York is clear. The situation in Syria is desperate, worsening, and reverberates throughout much of the world. The sooner, therefore, a credible diplomatic process emerges, the better. That credibility, however, is essential to win buy-in from the relevant Syrian and regional actors, and, on their own, the narrow consensus and aspirational timelines outlined in the Vienna statements cannot achieve it. Before rushing Syrian sides to a new negotiating table in a wintry European capital, the conflict's external players should do more to ensure that the table has all the legs it needs to stand on.
Noah Bonsey is Senior Syria Analyst for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.