US recommits to Geneva talks: implications for Syrian Kurdistan

After an extended period in which the Trump administration seemed little interested in the UN-led negotiations on Syria, US officials have recommitted Washington to those discussions.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – After an extended period in which the Trump administration seemed little interested in the UN-led negotiations on Syria, US officials have recommitted Washington to those discussions.

State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, told journalists on Tuesday that the US was “getting back to the Geneva process.” Her statement was all the more significant because it did not come in response to a reporter’s question: it was what the State Department wanted others to know.

The Geneva talks are “a real priority of ours and a priority of our Special Representative Jim Jeffrey as well, to reinvigorate the Geneva process,” Nauert explained.

Jeffrey, until recently retired from the State Department, served as US ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 and as ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. He was appointed Special Envoy for Syria Engagement two weeks ago.

‘We have accepted an invitation by Staffan de Mistura,” the UN special envoy for Syria, Nauert said. “We will be participating in talks in Geneva on September 14th.”

“We fully support” de Mistura’s efforts “to broker a political settlement,” she continued. “A military solution is not going to resolve” Syria’s long-term problems. There “has to be a political solution.” 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spoke similarly on Tuesday, but more toughly.

“Our goal is to move the Syria civil war into the Geneva process,” Mattis told the Pentagon press corps, “so the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them.”

Such a decision has major implications for Syrian Kurdistan.

Absent US engagement in the diplomacy that will play a crucial role in shaping Syria’s future, the field was left to Russia, which meant that Bashar al-Assad would remain in power, unconstrained. The message to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces—who have been America’s main partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and now control the northeast of the country—was, essentially, “figure out for yourselves the best deal that you can reach with the Assad regime.”

However, with the US newly recommitted to the Geneva process, and particularly with the Secretary of Defense denouncing the Assad regime so strongly, the message is otherwise, more along the lines of “be careful and maintain good ties with the US.”

In a similar vein, and, perhaps, in a move coordinated with Washington, French President Emmanuel Macron stated on Monday that a “return to normal” in Syria which left Assad in power would be a “grotesque error.”

Coming so belatedly, however, US efforts to reinvigorate the UN-led talks, known as “the Geneva process,” will not be easy.

On Wednesday, the Hudson Institute hosted a seminar on Syria. Responding to a question from Kurdistan 24, panelists expressed doubt about the likely success of the US diplomacy.

Both Randa Slim, the Middle East Institute’s Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program (informal diplomacy), and Charles Lister, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and Director of its Extremism and Counterterrorism Program, cautioned that the concept of “the Geneva process” has become blurred.

Russia created an alternative forum on Syria: the Astana process, named for the capital of Kazakhstan, where Moscow sponsored talks about Syria’s future with Turkey and Iran. Coupled with Syria’s military success, the Russian-backed diplomacy drew in the UN, and Moscow’s efforts have now mingled with de Mistura’s.

Both Slim and Lister were extremely skeptical of the prospects for success of the Geneva process, as it was originally conceived, and as Mattis described it on Tuesday.

Lister cautioned against any agreement that accepted the Russian version of Geneva, while Slim suggested “it all depends” on whether “the Americans will continue to stick” to an understanding of the Geneva talks that is “something more” than the Russian version.

Jeffrey is a tough-minded figure, as his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, so, perhaps, Washington will demonstrate a resolve that has been lacking so far.

Perhaps, that will lead to an unexpectedly positive outcome, perhaps not.

But in the possible scenarios for Syria, one is particularly relevant from the Kurdish perspective: a prolonged stand-off between the US and a cruel and despotic Baathist regime.

That was the situation in Iraq in the spring of 1991, and it is worthwhile to recall it.

Then, President George H. W. Bush reluctantly recognized his blunder in allowing Saddam Hussein to crush the post-Gulf War uprisings, and he initiated Operation Provide Comfort (OPC), which allowed the Kurdish population to return home from the mountains, where they had taken refuge.

Bush remained extremely wary of Kurdish political aspirations, however. The original US concept of a “safe haven” was a small area around Zakho, which did not extend even to Duhok.

The Kurdistan Region was subject to the UN embargo on Iraq, and in late 1991, Saddam imposed an internal embargo on the area, as well.

Coalition ground forces, which included French and British troops, withdrew that fall, leaving behind just a small liaison office in Zakho.

The only protection the Coalition then afforded was the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Coalition aircraft operated out of Incirlik Air Base, and they depended on Turkey’s renewing its approval for OPC every six months.

Gen. Jay Garner (US Army, Ret.), who commanded OPC’s ground forces, told Kurdistan 24 of his feelings leaving Kurdistan in the fall of 1991.

As he walked across the Khabur Bridge into Turkey, with two other officers, Garner looked back and said sadly, “They don’t have a chance.”

Recalling his thoughts twenty-five years later, he explained,“Five thousand villages had been destroyed. The people had just been relocated from the mountains. A good, large portion of Erbil had been destroyed,” and the same had happened in Duhok and Zakho.

“There was no economy. We had barely managed part of the wheat harvest. I just did not think it was possible to survive that,” he said.

That the Kurdistan Region would emerge, decades years later, as a flourishing entity, the most successful part of Iraq—what former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an army officer himself, described as a “miracle, almost”—was far from assured.

That depended on the Kurds themselves, both people and leadership, and the decisions they made.

There are similarities, and, of course, differences, between Iraqi Kurdistan then, and Syrian Kurdistan now. But to the extent there are similarities, there may also be lessons.

Editing by Nadia Riva