"Assad must go" slogan has undermined efforts in Syria from the very start - Intl Crisis Group CEO

The world is going through turbulent times. War is in full swing in the Middle East, and while Russia and America are desperately trying to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria, the unrest is spreading across the region and beyond. Economic troubles and waves of refugees are putting the decades-long stability of Western states at risk. Terrorism is a threat which can knock on anyone’s door in today’s world – and there is little authorities can do to stop it. As the battle against extremism takes center stage – can international players find a way to cooperate in the face of a common threat? Or will solutions become hostage to an endless power struggle between the world’s top players? We ask the CEO of International Crisis Group and former UN Under-Secretary-General – Jean-Marie Guéhenno is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President of the International Crisis Group, former UN diplomat, welcome to the show, great to have you with us.   Now, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, has warned he will suspend talks with Moscow over reviving the ceasefire in Syria. Kerry has called the latest truce efforts the “last chance” for peace in the country. Has this chance been missed now? What do you think?

Jean-Marie Guéhenno: I think if there's not an agreement within the next few days or weeks, indeed, the war will continue and so I think, a chance is being missed because there's no military solution to the Syrian conflict. No side can really crush the other side, so there's no other way than a political way.

SS: Deputy State Secretary Anthony Blinken said "we are actively considering other options" - that is his quote -  to end the conflict in Syria - what other options are there, other than a peace process?

JMG: As I said, I don't think there's a military option. I think the regional actors have an important role to play, because the Syrian conflict has really three layers: there's the Syrians themselves, there's the deep divide within the region, and there's the global powers - and there will not be a solution if there's no de-escalation also between the regional powers. One will have to come back, also, to a real discussion between the U.S. and Russia - that's essential, because the regime of president Assad can endure with the support of Russia and Iran, so Russia and Iran have to be part of the solution.

SS: Right, but Russia and the U.S., regardless of their differences are talking as much as they can over Syria; but my question was, in your opinion, what other options does the State Department have in mind when they say "we're actively considering other options"? What "other options" other than a peace deal?

JMG: I can't speak for the State Department. Indeed for political process to take hold, there has to be not only a military stalemate, but a perception of a military stalemate, and at this stage, of course, the position of the government of Syria has been strengthened: I could see how some Western powers would think that now it's time to strengthen the opposition with military means. I think that would mean further escalation and that's why it's so important to go back to the diplomatic track.

SS: Of course, the biggest part of the problem is implementing a truce, is telling Islamist opposition groups, which would be legitimate targets, from regular opposition - who would be part of any ceasefire. You have plenty of experience in grassroots conflict resolution - how do you ensure the myriad rebel groups aren’t Islamist? And who’s to blame if they break the ceasefire? At least with Assad’s forces, there’s always someone to talk to, someone responsible.

JMG: The situation in Syria is indeed much more complicated than in 2012 when I was, with Kofi Annan at the beginning of the political process. Now it's much more fragmented, you're right. I think it's not helpful to have a broad label of "terrorist" that covers most of the insurgents against the regime. I think one has to try to peel off from the most radical movements, from Daesh, from Al-Nusra, has to peel off Islamists, who, yes, use military means but could be part of the solution, because if you'd leave them outside the tent - in the end, you won't have a sustainable agreement. That's the case in many peace processes, where, indeed, you have to talk to people whom you don't like, who use means you deeply reject, but who have the capacity to spoil any political process if they are left outside.

SS: The agreement between Russia and the U.S. on Syria demanded rebels stop cooperating with terrorist groups. But Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, works so closely with opposition groups - how do you imagine them parting ways when they share operational planning, sections of the front, supplies, etc?

JMG: That is very difficult, because if they completely break their tactical connection with Al-Nusra, then they will have to fight on two or three fronts: they will have to fight against the government, they will become the enemies of Al-Nusra and they will have to fight Al-Nusra, and they also will have to fight Daesh. A weak opposition can't afford to do that. That's, probably, what the Americans have in mind when they say "we would consider other means", and beef up the opposition, so they are strong enough to part ways with the most radical groups.

SS: So are we to just accept the fact that they’re cooperating with terrorists? Is this the only way?

JMG: Well, they are tactically cooperating with... I mean, I hate to use the word "terrorist", because it's an often-misused word. They are cooperating with groups that commit acts of terror, there's no question in some cases.

SS: But is this the only way? Are we to accept that?

JMG: You have a situation now: because the conflict has lasted for much too long and we see that in many conflicts, there's more and more radicalisation and the more the conflict lasts, the more radicalisation you will have - that's the tragedy of Syria and that's why a policy that keeps the option that one side could crush the other and the conflict goes on and on, will only lead to further divisions, further radicalization and a very intractable situation that will spill over beyond Syria.

SS: I really mean precise things, like, in Aleppo, the FSA rebels coordinate with an alliance of Islamist groups which includes the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda. In nearby Hama, rebels armed with U.S.-made anti-tank missiles are taking part in a major offensive with the Al-Qaeda-inspired Jund al-Aqsa group. Is this acceptable? Are we to close our eyes on that and say, "Oh well, this is the way it is"?

JMG: You know, sadly, all sides today in Syria commit war crimes. So if the outside powers do not push the parties on which they have influence to go to the table and to make genuine concessions. If the government keeps the illusion that it can re-conquer Syria and just crush the opposition - then the war will continue, they you will have more radicalisation and in the end the whole world will suffer.

SS: Talking about parties that can be influenced. Russia is expected to put pressure on Assad to comply with the truce, but the U.S. State Department openly admits it doesn’t have the same kind of leverage over all the groups from the rebel side - so is the burden of upholding any truce distributed unevenly?

JMG: The Syrian government is a much stronger force than the various opposition groups, so pressure on the Syrian government can have a much bigger impact than anything that you do with rebel groups.

SS: As you're saying, ‘there’s no chance for long-term peace with Assad but a peace process can’t stipulate that Assad must go - we’ve heard “Assad must go” from Washington, from Ankara, from Brussels so many times, over and over again -  were these actors never interested in peace in Syria then - or just badly informed on the situation on the ground?

JMG: I would agree with you that the rhetoric of "Assad must go" was never a good idea and you have to start the process, and in the end, Assad may not be part of the picture, but it's important not to start by saying "Assad must go", I don't that's helpful, I think it's necessary to have a gradual process of de-escalation. I think it's impossible to think of a stable Syria with the present leadership still there, considering what has happened, but I think to sort of front-load that issue is not a good approach.

SS: And now, with the American presidential vote that is coming up - will failure to revive the Syrian ceasefire now mean months and months more of negotiations with the new administration, does it have to be agreed on right now?

JMG: Indeed, that's why what's happening now is so important, because as we know, when the new Administration comes in, it takes some time before it's full in place, they need to confirm ambassadors, etc., and so it's really essential not to let the effort that has been going on in the last few months to go to waste. We will lose a whole year if that happens, and I think, unfortunately, that's the most likely scenario now.

SS: Let's talk about Iraq a bit. Iraq has been struggling to regain parts of the country under Islamic State  - Mosul has been under ISIS since 2014. Iraqi troops are getting plenty of support from the American military - why are we seeing so little progress in Iraq?

JMG: Iraq is a badly divided country and when one thinks about the strategy with Mosul, I think it's very important in Mosul, as in Syria, not to have a military strategy that is, so to speak, ahead of the political strategy. It is fine to crush terrorist groups but if you don't have a sense of what will be the political dispensation after they have been crushed, then you're just preparing the next generation of terrorists. That is something that we at Crisis Group are seeing for Iraq, for Syria, for Libya: the single-minded focus on crushing terrorist groups - and we hate those, I mean, the acts committed by those terrorist groups, but the single-minded focus on crushing them without thinking through the politics of what comes after, the day after, is a dangerous mistake. That's the mistake that was done in Iraq war by the Americans. They thought: "let's get rid of the bad dictator Saddam Hussein and we'll all be fine afterwards" - now we are making the same mistake with terrorist groups, thinking "let's get rid of them and then we'll all be fine", and we will not be fine unless there's more attention given to the politics of this situation. You've mentioned Mosul, this is a very complicated situation, with Kurds, with Arabs in competition, with Shia versus Sunni, and if one doesn't think... it's a very delicate situation there, and if you don't think through the politics for Mosul, maybe you will destroy the ISIS grip on Mosul, but then something else will come later on.

SS: U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Libya started in August, and Washington said that they will last “weeks, not months”. But the campaign is far from over and the White House is expected to extend it even further. Is America going to be further dragged into the situation in Libya?

JMG: I think the Libyan situation looks very bad, frankly, because there is a deep political divide between the official government in Tripoli and then the eastern authorities and general Haftar, so there's no unity, no real functioning political process to bring all the Libyans together, and that means that the focus on destroying the Islamic State in Sirte, which, by the way, is the place Gaddafi tribe and that means that beyond the Islamic State, there's also tribal dimension - that single-minded focus, if it's not accompanied by a stronger effort to bring solid political process to Libya - I think, will not solve the Libyan quandary. There's a real risk that as you crush the IS in Sirte, it will spread to other parts of North Africa, to the Sahel and that would not be good news for a number of countries in the region.

SS: Two years after U.S. forces ended their mission in Afghanistan, ISIS has gained a foothold in the country, the Taliban are attacking its cities, people are on the run - were the Americans too fast to pull its troops out of the country?

JMG: We have advocated for a continued presence in Afghanistan, because we don't think that at the moment the authorities in Afghanistan are sufficiently consolidated, and I think it's important that they have some international support. It's interesting to see, I mean, going back to the Soviet and Russian engagement in Afghanistan, that the government in Kabul collapsed under pressure from the Taliban when the support of Soviet Union and Russia ended, before that, it could go on. I think, the situation is different, but it's important not to disengage from Afghanistan at this stage.

SS: Afghan president Ghani has signed a peace agreement with one of the militant Islamist groups active in the country. Do you see this is a sign of things to come, of peace with the Taliban? Or will the Taliban try and fight the war till it’s victorious?

JMG: It depends on the balance of power on the ground. At the moment the Taliban has no strong incentive to sue for peace. The regional relations are important, it's important that Pakistan be on board and not give support, or some element in Pakistan, not give support to Taliban groups. So there's a regional dimension to the issue, too. Frankly and sadly, I don't think there's going to be a quick political solution in Afghanistan, but, I think, engaging with the Taliban, is, indeed, necessary for a stable Afghanistan.

SS: While the U.S. is trying to cooperate with others to end the war in Syria, its ally Saudi Arabia is fighting a full-scale intervention war in Yemen with American weapons. The Washington Post reported that the Saudis are using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in the fight, and there are documented cases of such weapons being used against civilians - can this make the Americans cease support for their ally?

JMG: The war in Yemen is a terrible war, that, indeed, civilians are bearing the brunt of the war, that there have been bombings of hospitals, of schools, lots of violations of international humanitarian law by the government forces and also by the Houthis who have used siege to put pressure on the populations. Now is a critical moment in Yemen, the government has just decided to move the Central Bank from Sana'a. We don't think it's a good thing to do now, at a time when Secretary Kerry has put forward some political ideas for the resolution of the conflict that addressed a lot of the Houthis concerns. If the move of the Central Bank happens, that will be an excuse, maybe, for not engaging in that peace process, and that could deepen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, because a lot of civil servants will not be payed, cash will not go to all the regions, and that is an absolute disaster for Yemen. Again, in Yemen there's a window of opportunity to end that war, I think the Saudis now understand the need to end that war, but there has to be maximum pressure now to go to diplomacy rather than just continuing the war. Otherwise, we will see... Yes, we will see the same consequences with terrorist groups, yes, Al-Qaeda has been defeated, but if the war continues you will have other radical groups developing in Yemen, and it would be bad news for the whole region.

SS: There’s another dangerous conflict flaring up again right now - the continued spat between India and Pakistan, over militant incursions in Kashmir. This has escalated into open confrontation, with artillery and army units involved on both sides. Is this the beginning of another India-Pakistan war? Those countries are nuclear powers, how critical can this become?

JMG: There's always a danger when two nuclear powers are in military confrontation, obviously. I think the Indians have tried to calibrate their response in a way that would not lead to massive military escalation, but we have to be very vigilant there, because there's indeed the risk when two nuclear powers are shooting over ceasefire line.

SS: Pakistan is involved in fighting the Taliban insurgency on its other border, will this escalation with India hurt its anti-terror effort?

JMG: Pakistan has to step up its efforts against various groups within Pakistan. For a long time this has been a dilemma for Pakistan, because some of those groups were also used in the struggle against India. It's important that these groups be reigned in, be stopped, if Pakistan is to develop as a modern country engaged in global economy.

SS:You’ve advocated a stronger, more integrated European military - which could be possible without the UK resisting it. But you’ve written about developing the means to project force overseas - do you feel the EU as an entity should be intervening in wars around the world? And which ones if so?

JMG: The EU's greatest strength has been it's "soft power". It's an admirable example of countries that were at war for centuries and have managed to build a web of relations that makes war between them unthinkable, and that example continues to have relevance for the world. But "soft power" cannot be the full answer in a world where the overall balance of powers still matters. So I do believe that it's important for EU countries to have military muscle. At the moment, one can say that only the UK and France have a tradition and a capacity to project force. The German Army is in a process of transformation, but there's no real massive projection capacity of the EU. I don't think that just projecting force is the solution in many situations, but having that capacity is important. It has to be used wisely, and we have seen in the past 15 years a number of examples where it was not used wisely. When France, for instance, projected force in Mali to save the day when terrorist groups were on their way to Bamako, the capital of Mali - that was a good thing. In some cases you need to be able to react quickly under international law, respecting international law. But, force is needed, and the EU, which has a great interest in the stability of Africa and the stability of the Middle East, needs to have those capacities.

SS: The UN peacekeeping efforts, which you personally have seen from the inside, haven’t shrunk in recent years - but peacekeepers usually arrive into a conflict situation when it’s already out of control - can peacekeeping be done earlier, preventively? What kind of a country will agree to host a preventive peacekeeping force?

JMG: There was a case in the Balkans, as you know, of a preventive deployment that was quite helpful - a small mission, but you're right: countries rarely want to have foreign presence before all hell's broken loose. They much prefer to be left alone and that is sometimes dangerous - to wait for the crisis to turn into an open conflict. But a greater political engagement is important. There's a number of situations in the world, which not necessarily justify the deployment of peacekeeping force, but a political engagement would be necessary. And there are places where there's peacekeeping force, but not enough political engagement - look at the DRC. There's a looming crisis there. Presidential elections are supposed to take place before the end of the year, obviously they're not going to take place, and we see escalating violence in Congo that could jeopardise 15 years of efforts of the UN. I do think that military force, when it is not accompanied by strong political engagement is not a good proposition.

SS: Alright. Thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group, former UN diplomat, about the dangers, conflicts and instability unraveling around the globe. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.