The Syrian peace talks are cautiously proceeding despite Iran being invited and then disinvited from the talks, divisions within the Syrian government delegation, and utter disagreement over the possibility of a transitional government. Expectations for any type of political settlement to the war remain very low.
Unsurprisingly, President Bashar al-Assad deflected his role in the Syrian civil war in an interview with AFP leading up to the talks. Instead of making a serious effort to focus on halting the violence against his own people, he wants the focus of the talks to be about fighting terrorists. According to Assad, the Syrian conflict is his “war against terrorism.” The peace talks mark nearly three years since the start of the bloody Syrian civil war.
Assad labeling all rebel forces as terrorists (a claim Iran’s president echoed at the World Economic Forum) highlights the hypocrisy of his own labels. Not only has Assad been supported by terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and financed and armed by Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism; Syria also finances and supports terrorist organizations such as Palestine Islamic Jihad. Syria itself has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1979, a title the country continues to maintain under Assad’s regime. Assad asserts that there is no distinction between the rebel forces and the al-Qaeda-linked fighters trying to hijack the conflict.
Assad’s relationship with Hezbollah and Iran has been further strengthened by the war. Assad’s actions to prolong the conflict to ensure a military victory against the rebels eliminate the possibility of any kind of political solution. Assad fails to recognize that his very actions are breeding extremism and consolidating power for the jihadist faction in Syria fighting against Assad’s regime. Chaos breeds operating space for groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Assad’s so-called war on terrorism is a double-edged sword. Negotiators in Geneva should not fall for the trap. If Assad wants to fight terrorism, he should look in the mirror and end his support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.