THE BLOG

Syria: Vienna (Hard) Ball

19/11/2015 10:43 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Last Friday night, ISIL killers struck across Paris, taking innocent lives in their latest bid to advance a twisted agenda of hate and sowing discord and fear of the other. This follows equally murderous attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Suruc... and sadly elsewhere.

From its bases in Syria, ISIL and Bashar al-Assad's regime both wreak misery on the Syrian people and together spread terrorism and instability far and wide beyond Syria's borders.

ISIL and Assad are two sides of the same coin, bent on murder and fear mongering to shore up their rule. While ISIL hits Paris, the Assad regime forces unleash a hail of barrel bombs on the Syrian population. Like ISIL, Assad doesn't care who he hits, so long as he holds power.

Which is a long way of saying the international community needs to help Syrians save Syria, and we need to do it now.

Two hours' flight away in Vienna, on Saturday morning, the international community pledged to do just that. Ministers and representatives of 17 countries, the EU, the UN and the Arab League came together to agree a way through the hell that is Syria today. I was one of those privileged to take part in this.

This was the second time the international community came together in Vienna, this time creating the International Syria Support Group. The first had been two weeks before. Then, US Secretary of State John Kerry had been clear on the urgency of the situation.

Now, he made clear how Paris and Beirut attacks days before underlined the urgency yet further. We had to tighten and sharpen principles agreed on 30 October and turn these into an action plan.

A day of discussion yielded that plan in the form of the second Vienna statement, as well as agreement on an International Syria Support Group which would drive the plan forward.

Nothing in this world is perfect. Critics have lined up and will continue to do so to pick holes in the plan and tear it down (that's what they do after all). But I think it's good, and here's why.

First off, it commits to transition in Syria. Not a weasel word like 'transformation' or 'evolution'. Transition. Let me spell this out: away from Assad and his ruling clique, and towards something else, something better - as a first step, credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance (and, yes, Assad's governance is sectarian, cloaked in a charade of 'secularism').

Second, the Support Group has committed to a clear timeframe: a start date for formal negotiations - not a dialogue, not a brainstorm, but negotiations - between the Opposition and 'Government' (my apostrophes) by 1 January; governance established by six months; constitution and electoral arrangements to follow; elections by 18 months, or, to make this even more real, mid-2017.

Third, there is real hope for civilians: confidence building measures that would make a political process more viable and pave the way for a nationwide ceasefire; pressure to end indiscriminate violence on the population (Assad regime: yes, you're the main culprit here). At the same time, the plan is realistic. A ceasefire is not in prospect without being linked to a credible political process; the trust isn't there, yet. And confidence building measures help get you to that ceasefire.

Fourth, there is clear intent behind supporting the Syrian Opposition so that they can stand toe-to-toe with the regime in negotiations, their heads held high. For the record, those states on the side of the Syrian people recognise the Syrian National Coalition as the 'heart and lead' of the Opposition. The Coalition know what they now have to do to reach out across Syrian groups and people to establish a common vision, purpose and a negotiating position by January. We are helping with that and will stand by them. That was Foreign Secretary's message to visiting President Khaled Khoja earlier this month.

Fifth, the ISSG will help develop a common understanding on who the terrorists are in Syria. ISIL is one. Al-Qaida's al-Nusra Front is another. We can and will use this to put more pressure on Russia to stop bombing the good guys; their commitment to the process will be judged by their actions.

Where I'm focused is more on who's willing to abide by the new political process and the values pretty much all Syrians aspire to: one Syria, free of Assad, undivided, at peace with itself and its neighbours, with an inclusive government affording equal participation, rights, responsibilities and protections for all, where pluralism and rule of law are fundamental principles, not 'nice to haves'.

Sixth, the UN Security Council back stops everything. It will empower a UN ceasefire-monitoring mission and enforce it. It will back the transition process. It will have the final say on designating terrorist groups not designated so far.

Let's tackle two issues head on.

Assad's name is nowhere mentioned in the statement. Given the composition of those around the table, that is hardly surprising. Yet it is clear that the transition plan set out in this latest plan does not have a place for him. By his brutal rule, gassing, torturing and pounding his own people to death, he's ruled himself out of Syria's future. There is only one way the formal negotiations can turn out on this.

For the second time, no Syrians were present in the room. I can only try to imagine the frustration at having others frame a plan about your country's future. But Syrians above all know why Vienna worked out that way; the region and the international community needed to hammer out what their own approach should be to end a conflict which is as much a proxy war as a civil one. What we need to focus on now is that Syrians are firmly back in charge of their destiny and the Support Group's role is to support, not hinder, them in that.

So, that's the text. What's next?

First, we in the Support Group need to keep this moving. The most pressing task is support to the Opposition to help them be ready for the negotiations to come.

Second, Syrians continue to need our help, right now. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to Syria (the US is the largest). Our humanitarian contribution is big, but we also provide wider support to help stand by Syrian moderates who work to serve their communities and for a genuine transition.

Third, we need to keep our feet firmly planted in reality while our heads and hearts reach for a transition and a better future. The regime and its backers continue savagely to attack Syrians. Russia's military intervention in Syria has complicated the conflict and is making a political solution harder to achieve. Russia claims to be attacking ISIL but is primarily targeting the Syrian armed opposition. So while the Vienna process goes forward, we will stand by the Opposition, shine a light on Russia's military strikes on non-ISIL targets, and on Assad's brutality, and support UN Special Envoy de Mistura and his team is what is truly a daunting task.

When I got home from Vienna, I found my 'Vienna - Delegate' badge in the bottom of my briefcase. I didn't throw it out, but stored it away for safekeeping. Because I want to retrieve that badge in future years and say to myself, 'I was there when we finally launched a plan which helped save Syria'. So let's all have a little hope here, tempered, of course, with a strong dose of hard headed realism to ensure Assad doesn't get away with it.