Originally published on The Huffington Post on November 3, 2015.
Last week, talks to bring an end to the Syrian civil war finally restarted. Since the conflict began over four and and a half years ago, more than 9 million people – nearly half of Syria’s population – have been forced to flee their homes to escape the violence. The country has fallen into such chaos that the UN ceased counting the number of people killed in the fighting nearly two years ago.
Despite the optimism prompted by the new talks, the prospects for a lasting peace in Syria look as remote as ever. Indeed, as the discussions ended, the United States announced that it would be increasing its military involvement in the conflict by sending troops to target extremists on the ground.
The international influence on Syria’s destiny does not end with the military interventions of the US, Russia, Iran or even the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to join ISIS. Perhaps the key factor that made the Vienna talks possible was western powers – particularly the US – dropping its objections to Iran’s involvement in the peace process. The Iranians joined a negotiating table that is already crowded by representatives from neighboring powers dealing with a vast influx of refugees, by the regional powers for whom Syria has become a proxy war, and the wider international community.
The priority for these talks must first and foremost be the protection and security of the Syrian people. But such security will not simply be achieved by a cessation of immediate hostilities to the satisfaction of the international powers and their narrow political interests. As foreign interventions in Syria have escalated, the voices of the Syrian people have gradually been drowned out by competing international interests.
Peace talks that are dominated by American voices, Russian voices, Iranian voices, Saudi voices, may provide the opportunity for a de-escalation and perhaps some kind of ceasefire, but without greater involvement of Syrian society, the talks cannot bring lasting peace. This can only be guaranteed by a establishing a strong foundation on which to start building the new, post-conflict Syria.
There is no place in the current peace talks for the many Syrian politicians and members of civil society that will need to be part of the process of reuniting the country. There is no opportunity for these people to come together, to talk and to start forming some agreement on what the new Syria will start to look like. Already there are many groups and networks working to represent the voice and interest of their communities, in Syria and among those displaced. These groups and individuals will have a key role to play in reconstructing Syrian society, they need international support so that they can build not only sustainable peace but a country to which the many millions who have fled can return and in which they can build a future for themselves.
These discussions must start now and they must be an integral part of the international peace efforts. If not we cannot ensure that the post-conflict Syria is formed with the interests of the Syrian people at its heart, and is not the product of an international carve up.
Where international intervention is required urgently is in providing stabilization and support for displaced Syrians. Millions have fled to Syria’s borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This represents not only a complex humanitarian challenge – particularly with winter fast approaching – but the lack of educational and employment opportunities leaves many without hope, and worse, makes them vulnerable to extremism.
Without addressing the needs of the displaced, Syria will face the prospect of lost generations, not only those killed in the fighting, but those whose hopes for the future are washed away in the snows of foreign refugee camps.
Whether they are in camps on the border, or sheltering from air strikes and artillery in Aleppo or Damascus, or making a perilous journey across the Aegean sea, the people of Syria must be the masters of their country’s destiny. If Syrians become marginalized at the their own peace talks, what chance do they have of building a just society and a lasting peace? The Vienna talks must provide the Syrian people with the chance for them to build a new Syria.
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