Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Towards peace in Syria?

A partial breakthrough in talks to end the crisis in Syria may have been achieved in Vienna, but the Syrian opposition remains unconvinced, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 30 October, 17 foreign ministers representing the major powers and regional countries converged on Vienna to seek a way out of the Syrian crisis. The government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the country’s opposition were not invited, but Iran made it to the international gathering for the first time since the conflict erupted more than four years ago.

“One of the most important agreements of today’s meeting is that the participants are asking the UN to gather representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition to begin the political process,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a news conference after the meeting.

He noted that the ongoing political process should provide an opportunity for all sides to create “an inclusive structure” that will help to prepare a new constitution and hold elections in Syria. He added that all Syrian nationals, including refugees in other countries, should be able to take part in the elections.

A communiqué released after the talks noted that although “substantial differences” had appeared during the meeting, the participants agreed on points including Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character, the need for state institutions to remain intact, that the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, should be protected, and the need to accelerate diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Humanitarian access should be improved and said they will increase their support for internally displaced persons, refugees and for countries hosting displaced Syrians.

They also agreed that Islamic State (IS) group and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, must be defeated, and that the 2012 Geneva Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 should provide the basis for talks by representatives of the Syrian government and opposition on a political process leading to credible, inclusive, nonsectarian governance in Syria to be followed by a new constitution and elections.

The participants at the Vienna talks could not agree either on the fate of Al-Assad or the duration of the interim phase. The identity of the “terrorist organisations” in Syria — aside from IS — was also left unclear.

The meeting sent a clear message that the future of Syria will be decided, not by its own people, but by the international community. Although the Syrian people will participate in the “interim phase,” other matters, especially the ceasefire and the fight against IS, will be handled by powerful foreign powers.

Another signal sent by the Vienna participants was that for the first time ever Iran — the country blamed for prolonging the conflict through its staunch backing of the regime — will now be viewed as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In return, Tehran, perhaps as the price for being included in the prestigious gathering, signalled that it will back a six-month political transition period in Syria followed by elections to decide Al-Assad’s fate.

The third message coming out of the meeting, and perhaps the only one that the opposition felt good about, was that the 2012 Geneva Declaration will be the basis of Syria’s future governance.

Acknowledging that differences still persist, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his country’s position on Al-Assad at the Vienna meeting. “There is no way president Al-Assad can unite and govern Syria,” he said. “The Syrians deserve a different choice.”

Lavrov also reiterated his country’s claim that the “Syrian people” alone will decide Al-Assad’s fate. “The Syrian people should define the future of their country,” he said, adding, “including Al-Assad’s fate.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir disagreed, however. Speaking to Sky News Arabia on 31 October, he said that Iranian and other foreign troops must leave Syria.

“Our two points on which we differ from [others], are on [setting] a date and means for Al-Assad’s departure and [setting] a date and means for the withdrawal of foreign forces, especially Iranian ones. These are the two basic points [that], without [agreement], there can be no solution,” Jubeir said.

While the Syrian regime hailed the meeting as a “victory” and credited Russian and Iranian diplomacy for their good work, the opposition was less than thrilled. Even so, some opposition members voiced their appreciation of the way the Vienna participants had respected the Geneva Declaration.

Opposition member Samir So’ayfan was pleased to see the Vienna participants reassert the value of the 2012 Declaration. But he cautioned that even “a perfect deal” cannot address the “mountains of problems” facing the country.

Samir Eita, a Paris-based opposition member, considered the Vienna meeting the “practical embodiment” of earlier proposals by Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria.

“It is true that there is no regional or international consensus on the fate of the government in Syria. But there is a consensus that efforts are needed to stop the war, relieve the suffering and create a neutral climate among the Syrian people,” he said.

Soliman Youssef, an Assyrian and member of the opposition, was less optimistic. “The Vienna meeting brings Syria back to square one,” he said.

Diplomats from the 17 countries involved in the talks are due to hold another meeting in Vienna in two weeks’ time.

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