The turn to war
The apparent failure of the Geneva conference may mean the end of diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis, writes Graham Usher at the UN
The 30 June Geneva conference called by UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan represented perhaps a last chance for world powers to agree a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis. The effort now looks broken on the same reef that has sunk every potential international rescue in the 15 month revolt: disagreement over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Attended by the five Security Council permanent members, three Arab countries and Turkey, Geneva was meant to breathe life into Annan's moribund peace plan: a so far unobserved ceasefire followed by political negotiations that would, in theory, bring about elections and a "genuinely democratic and pluralistic state" in Syria.
In Geneva, the plan's midwife was to be the formation of a Transitional National Unity Government (TNUG), in which government and opposition would have representatives. But it would exclude "those whose presence would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation": a discreet way of shutting out Al-Assad.
That clause had been demanded by the United States, the Arab League, Turkey and, above all, the Syrian opposition, for whom Al-Assad's ouster is the price for taking part in any UN steered transition. Russia pushed back, insisting that the TNUG's composition was a matter for the "Syrian people" to decide and not foreign "dictates".
A day of negotiations resulted in the flimsiest of compromises. The TNUG's composition would be by "mutual consent", said Geneva's final statement, a formula that grants Al-Assad and the opposition veto power over each other.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pronounced himself "delighted" with the fudge. "There is no attempt to impose any kind of transition process and no attempt to exclude any group from the process".
His US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, could barely suppress her rage. "Al-Assad will still have to go. He will never pass the mutual consent test given the blood on his hands".
Western states had approached Geneva believing that, absent military intervention, the road to change in Damascus lies through Moscow. This was not a mistaken belief. For the first time at Geneva Russia signed up to a transition plan that could lead to a post-Assad future. But Moscow is still opposed to outside interference, including action by the Security Council.
Russian commentators say this not out of loyalty to Al-Assad or to protect arms contracts worth $700 million a year, still less to hold onto its militarily ancient Tartus naval base. It's rather to prevent the West orchestrating another Libya-like regime change in the Middle East. Russia has two fears in Syria, they say.
One is that induced change could lead to an Iraqi-like collapse of the state, and with it an Iraqi-like haven for Jihadi groups, including Al-Qaeda. The other is that it might deliver Damascus into the fold of a Muslim Brotherhood government allied to the Gulf States, pro-American in foreign policy and hostile not only to Moscow but also Iran and Syria's non-Sunni minorities.
Such an outcome would pose a risk to the 30,000 Russian citizens in Syria. It would also put a Sunni Islamist government next door to the North Caucasus, where Russia's homegrown jihadists are active. It is for these geopolitical reasons that Russia prefers the current dispensation in Damascus to any other, say analysts.
The problem is the more Russia defends Al-Assad from any meaningful pressure to change course -- including from the Security Council -- the more likely will the scenarios it most fears come about.
Turkey is one of several regional powers that support the Annan peace plan in principle but the Syrian opposition in practice. It hosts the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian army, probably helps arm and train them and is shaping both, if not as a government in exile, then as the political forces able to lead the transition to a post-Assad Syria.
Combined with Gulf cash, over a year's fighting experience and increasing numbers of officer defections, this support has transformed the armed Syrian opposition from a militia to a guerrilla army that can command large swathes of the Syrian countryside.
Increasingly encircled, a desperate regime is trying to militarily defeat the guerrillas by reclaiming urban centres via brutal punishments inflicted by helicopters, artillery, troops and militia.
Three consequences have flowed from this turn to war. First, the casualties on and abuses by both sides have soared. Nearly 16,000 Syrians have lost their lives since the revolution began in March 2011. But a colossal 5,000 have been killed since April, when Annan first mooted his peace plan and, it appears, regime and rebel chose military victory over political compromise as the strategic goal.
Second, the sectarian cast of the conflict has become more pronounced. As the body count climbs the regime's core support is revealed to be overwhelmingly Alawite, which sees the fight in increasingly existential terms. The opposition, meanwhile, whether fighters or supporters, are drawn from the Sunni majority: it sees numbers, geography and history as being on its side.
Finally, the conflict has become more regionalised. Last month Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane, it said for violating Syrian airspace (Ankara said it was downed in international airspace). On 1 July -- having enhanced its military rules of engagement -- Turkey scrambled F16 jets after Syrian helicopters flew "close" to the border. Ankara and Damascus are a tripwire away from hostilities: one stumble could start a war.
The Geneva conference may mean the demise of the Annan peace plan. But it doesn't augur the end of an international engagement in the Syrian conflict. It's just that under Annan the rules of that engagement were to be framed by UN diplomats, peacekeepers and unarmed observers. Now they are likely to be set by guerrilla fighters and regional armies.