Results of negotiation.

Photographer: Ameer al-Halbi/AFP/Getty Images)

Opposition Leader: U.S. Diplomacy Costs Syrian Lives

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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In the days since the collapse of the Syria peace talks championed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the humanitarian catastrophe in northern Syria has grown, tens of thousands of new refugees were created, and the Russian- and Iranian-backed killing of civilians has increased. These are all consequences of the flawed U.S. strategy, according to the lead negotiator for the Syrian opposition.

Riyad Hijab was prime minister of Syria in 2012 under the dictator Bashar al-Assad; he became the highest-ranking defector from the regime when he switched sides and joined the rebels. He is now the leader of the High Negotiating Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at last week’s meetings in Geneva, which collapsed after two days. Kerry had pressured the Syrian opposition leaders to attend, even warning they could lose their U.S. funding if they boycotted. Hijab says that Kerry’s approach -- to try to persuade Assad and Russia to negotiate while the offensive continues -- has actually made things much worse.

“The administration is saying it is testing the good faith of the other side,” Hijab told me in a phone interview on Monday. “But when you are testing these things and it fails, the price that is being paid is horrendous death and the expansion of extremism and terrorism on the ground.”

Syrian forces backed by Russian air power are pressing an offensive against rebel groups in and around Aleppo, the nation's largest city, that began before the scheduled peace talks. Kerry said Friday, “This has to stop.” He said he would know if the other parties, such as Russia, were “serious” about upholding United Nations Security Council resolutions on protecting civilians after a meeting later this week in Munich of the international group of countries supporting proxies in the Syrian civil war.

In the eyes of the Syrian opposition, Russia and Iran are making a mockery of the peace process, and Kerry’s reluctance to acknowledge this is putting them in deadly harm. It also creates more problems for America's regional allies, aids the Islamic State and dims the prospects for future peace talks. “The failures of the negotiations end up lowering the credibility of the moderate opposition in front of the Syrian people,” said Hijab. “United States credibility is plummeting within the population of Syria but also in the region as a whole.”

This week, it is Syrians near Aleppo who are paying the price. Regime forces, with Russian support, are advancing toward the Turkish border, threatening to cut off opposition groups and civilians from their source of aid. At least 35,000 people have joined the flood of refugees since the collapse of the talks, ahead of what many anticipate will be another in a long line of starvation sieges the regime is perpetrating on cities. Hijab said there are now 18 cities under siege, three more than when the talks began.

Moscow wants the peace talks to fail, Hijab said. He accused the Russian air force of using illegal cluster bombs indiscriminately against civilians. (Human rights groups support those claims.) “The situation has taken a horrible turn, specifically in terms of the scorched earth policy of the Russian aircraft and the way that they are bombing, literally destroying everything,” he said. “The other side has been moving to ensure the failure of any negotiation through horrendous bombardment.”

Hajib said the Obama administration is still pressuring the opposition to return to talks despite the ongoing offensive, but the opposition is insisting that Russia adhere by the UN resolutions first. In a press conference with reporters last week, Kerry said of the Syrian-Russian attacks on civilians, “It’s not going to stop just by whining about it.” He called on rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table.

At a press briefing on Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the Barack Obama administration had not been badgering the Syrian opposition, but did want them to sit down and negotiate without preconditions, such as an end to bombing of civilians and humanitarian access.

"By being able to have talks, hopefully, ideally, you can start to get at the issues that are most of prime importance, which is a cease-fire and humanitarian access," Kirby said. "It's hard to do that when you're not even having a dialogue. It's certainly hard to do that when, as we saw, people are being bombed."

But Hijab says the conditions necessary for resumed negotiations aren't close to being met. The rebels are seeking more financial and military support to defend civilians and counter the regime’s offensives, including weapons that can defend against air attacks. “This administration and the international community have completely disappointed and deserted us after five years,” he said. “The U.S. support to the opposition is in no way comparable to the support Iran and Russia has given to the Assad regime.”

If history is any guide, the failure of peace talks means increased violence and an expansion of both terrorism and refugees. Since the last failure of Syrian peace talks in 2014, the Islamic State has expanded its reach in Syria, spread its reign of terror from North Africa to Western Europe, while the Assad regime’s sieges force millions of refugees to flee. This will only get worse if the Obama administration continues its current policy, said Hijab.

The next president, whether Democrat or Republican, will certainly make big changes to U.S. policy to Syria. But over the next 11 months the situation can get much worse. There’s a risk inherent in deepening America’s involvement, but Obama must weigh that against the many costs of diplomacy when it fails.

(Updates with comments from State Department spokesman in ninth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net