During the first week after the Vienna talks about the future of Syria, state behavior demonstrated no movement toward conflict resolution and, if anything, revealed increased determination to fight for zero-sum victory. Despite some cooperation against the Islamic State, in general Syria remained a battlefield for contradictory state agendas.
Following the Vienna talks, the world might have hoped for at least some international steps away from private agendas and in the direction of compromise. Iran and Russia might have laid out a mechanism for fair and open elections, e.g., by proposing an interim, internationally monitored regime for the purpose, rather than proposing elections to be held under Assad’s control. Turkey and the U.S. might have moved toward some arrangement supporting a Kurdish entity in Syria with safeguards against Kurdish attacks on Turkey or Turkish attacks on the Syrian Kurdish entity. Iran and Saudi Arabia might have worked out an arrangement for respective spheres of influence or joint pursuit of economic interests in Syria. New international financing of refugee camps in neighboring countries might have been offered. Specific regions, e.g., Rojava, might have been offered precise military security guarantees. U.S. steps to encourage Sunni-Kurdish cooperation, in particular the avoidance of ethnic discrimination in ethnically mixed areas being seized from the Islamic State would seem a particularly non-controversial and low-cost positive opportunity lost during the week. One week after the Vienna talks, it is hard to detect any movement in these directions. Instead, international attention remains focused on warfare, with a subordinate effort to control the refugee flow into Europe (but not on altering the horrifying conditions provoking that flow).
The diagram tells a clear story of state focus exclusively on punishments to resolve the Syrian conflict. The numbers indicate events in date order. Even the events categorized in the blue quadrant belong there only in the sense that they represent a positive-sum outcome for the states opposing the Islamic State (not clearly contributing to a positive-sum resolution of the Syrian conflict per se). Both the absence of events in the green quadrant and the absence of any movement over time toward the green quadrant suggest the absence of progress toward a positive-sum resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Toward a Solution
Instead of the state-centric solution, which may make global leaders feel comfortable but which is all but irrelevant in the ethnic war zone of the central Mideast, a more realistic approach might be to actually listen to the people who live there. If there is a single clear message coming from the diverse population of Sunnis, Shi’a, Kurds, Alawites, and smaller minorities across the region formerly occupied by Iraq and Syria, it would seem to be this: “Get off my back!” Kurdistan offers a model: in the absence of major interference from global powers, Kurdistan has not only figured out how to govern itself and avoid the fatal temptation of trying to conquer its neighbors, but it has managed to establish critical trade ties with, of all countries, Turkey. If Turkey can live in peace with a Kurdish state, then perhaps there is indeed hope for the region.
Ali Khedery, who spent 2003 to 2010 advising the U.S. in Iraq, summed up the steps forward in “Iraq in Pieces” [Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2015, 33-41]: “broker cease-fires, deploy peacekeepers, and, as administrative and security conditions permit, allow every district in Iraq and Syria to conduct cascades of UN-monitored referendums.”  Even if the security disaster justifies the continued military moves of the global powers so eager to profit from interfering in the Mideast, they should be emphasizing the definition and defense of peaceful regions, followed immediately by the facilitation of local self-government. The millions of refugees would be likely to vote with their feet faster than the U.N. could even organize referendums.
Obama just put military “boots on the ground;” Putin seems suddenly to have several thousand troops in Syria; Khamenei appears to be keeping pace; Erdogan is firing cannons at the backs of Syrian Kurds even as they attack the Islamic State. Where are the U.S. or Russian or Iranian or Turkish civil society boots on the ground? Where are the construction crews and aid packages to construct new cities for the refugees?
Beyond such straightforward steps that any state sincerely trying to help the Syrian and Iraqi people could take unilaterally, where is the creative diplomacy?
Are Ankara and Washington trying to define mutually acceptable rules for the existence of a Rojava canton? Surely, now safely elected, Erdogan could understand that chaos on his Syrian border is not conducive to Turkish national security?
Are Moscow and Washington discussing a way to ensure each an acceptable sphere of influence in a new Syria? Surely the threat of the Islamic State is sufficient to persuade both that sharing influence and defeating the Islamic State would be more advantageous than an endless proxy war?
Can Tehran and Riyadh find no common ground in a collapsed state that contains both Sunni and Shi’i populations in need of peace? If the Islamic State poses the threat of terrorism and needless expenditure of resources to the U.S. and Russia, it poses a potentially existential threat to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Is it so difficult for all the European states and Turkey now so preoccupied with the flood across their borders of Syrian refugees to imagine that aid dollars to resettle refugees within the Mideast would be more effective than moving the whole Syrian population into Europe and Turkey?
When one looks at the international resources being poured into warfare in Syria and the lack of activity to build peaceful society there, the utter failure of the Vienna talks to spur the international community into taking positive action stands as a crushing indictment of the regimes concerned.