Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hopes for Geneva III

Delegations representing the Syrian regime and opposition are meeting in Geneva to try to find a solution to the crisis in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Regardless of how people describe the Geneva III Conference, whether as negotiations, a roundtable or consultations, everything suggests that there is a consensus between the US and Russia, the two countries that have the greatest influence on the Syrian question, to make the conference succeed.

Evidence of this is to be found in the agreement over who would and who would not be invited to the conference, on the insistence that the conference should start on time and on a set day, and the determination that the main parties to the crisis would be on hand. Of course, such preludes do not necessarily guarantee a smooth and unhampered path to a solution.

The Geneva III Conference has taken about a month of preparation for the powers concerned to ensure the participation of the major Syrian parties, while marginalising some that do not have a central role.

Two Syrian delegations are taking part in the conference, one representing the regime and the other representing the Higher Negotiations Commission (HNC). All other invitees, whether pro-regime or from the opposition, are attending solely as observers.

Sources familiar with the preparations for the conference say that the US and Russia have also agreed to exclude many parties, either directly, such as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey brands as a terrorist organisation, or indirectly, by refusing to grant them an entry visa to Switzerland.

The HNC only agreed to take part after receiving written pledges from the major powers that humanitarian concerns would be addressed. In particular, it insisted on the implementation of Articles 12 and 13 of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. which pertain to the lifting of the siege on rebel-controlled areas in Syria, the release of prisoners and an immediate halt to the bombardment of civilians.

The HNC has threatened to withdraw from the negotiations if it senses any lack of seriousness on the part of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in implementing these provisions, described in the resolution as non-negotiable and the right of the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition team wants the negotiations to lead to the creation of an interim governing body with full executive powers to rule Syria during the transitional period. It holds that such a body is consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 1154, which calls for the creation of an interim government in Syria to draw up a new constitution within six months and hold general elections within 18 months.

The opposition has also underscored the fact that the Geneva Declaration approved by the major powers in 2012 explicitly states that the interim body must have “full executive authority” covering military and security matters. In other words, the current Syrian president would have no effective powers, even if he remained in place until elections were held in early 2017 at the latest.

The opposition has been split over whether to take part in the conference. In favour was Louay Hussein, president of the Building the Syrian State Movement, which supports the HNC, who said, “The negotiations will succeed in the end because they are a facade for a US-Russian agreement to bring an end to the Syrian crisis in order to eliminate Daesh [the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State group], Al-Nusra Front and all the other groups categorised as terrorist by the International Syria Support Group.”

He continued, “Within weeks we will see the beginnings of a ceasefire, the beginning of the release of detainees and abducted persons, and the entry of relief convoys into the areas under siege.”

The opposite view has been expressed by independent opposition figure Fawaz Tallu, who believes that the conference is a waste of time. “They will entertain themselves with negotiations. They will wait six months to test the intentions of the regime. During that time, there will be a million more refugees, 100,000 more dead and a huge political loss for the opposition,” Tallu said.

“The verbal reassurances the opposition has received have no legal value. The opposition should not have gone to the negotiations except under its own conditions. If it had not attended, there would have been no negotiations. That would have driven Russia and the US crazy and they would ultimately have yielded to the opposition’s conditions.”


THE GOVERNMENT VIEW: The Syrian government has hastened to assemble a negotiating team and announced that it is participating in the conference in accordance with its own conditions.

Damascus interprets Resolution 2254 as being a call to all concerned to take part in the war against terrorism that takes priority over any political process. It says that all the opposition factions that have taken up arms, whether moderate or extremist, are to be considered terrorists.

After eliminating this “terrorism,” it says it will be possible to proceed to the formation of a national unity government (which to the regime means adding ministers from the opposition to its government) and preparing for parliamentary elections (not presidential elections) under the supervision of the Syrian security agencies and the countries that support the regime.

In sum, Damascus reads Resolution 2254 as promoting the “survival of the regime” and a return to the situation prior to March 2011.

The regime has approached the negotiations thus far with a haughty sense of its own superiority. It has dispatched a delegation of diplomats and lawyers to the conference who have no effective weight. None of them are important members of the regime or have any decision-making powers. The delegation is in Geneva to engage in dialogue, not to negotiate, and it will not accept any preconditions from the opposition, the regime has declared.

This behaviour stems from its belief that it has succeeded in reversing opposition military advances on the ground. However, in fact, it has been Russia that had achieved this, while the regime itself remains far too weak to achieve any military victory, however minor.

The regime imagines that it has support elsewhere in the world and that its views are respected. It rejects the notion of a new governing authority with full executive powers and believes it can only gain by digging in its heels. It has also refused to regard the humanitarian issue as non-negotiable and stated that it will also be on the agenda of the conference.

The problem of varying interpretations of the UN resolutions is a thorny one. Resolution 2254 is imprecise in the details it gives of the settlement process, and it does not include mechanisms for implementation or principles stipulating obligations and the measures to be brought to bear against parties that evade them.

UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has stated that he will follow a different approach in the current negotiations. Meetings will take place behind closed doors and away from the media. Invited delegations will not meet face to face, but rather de Mistura and other members of his team will shuttle back and forth between them to transmit opinions and propose ideas for discussion.

Only after a certain period will the negotiations shift to direct talks on three tracks: the humanitarian issue, the ceasefire and the political process. The war against terrorism is to be handled on the ceasefire track.

However, the US does not approve of these parallel tracks and has insisted that the issues should be handled consecutively, beginning with the humanitarian matters, then proceeding to the ceasefire and then to the political issues, leading to the creation of a “trusted, comprehensive and non-sectarian” governing authority or “coalition government” in Syria that will assume responsibility for security affairs and the war against terrorism.

 is also the approach preferred by the opposition, which nevertheless differs from the Americans on the nature of the governing authority. It wants to see an interim government with “full executive authority” instead of a loosely defined national unity government with no clearly stipulated powers.

The regime wants neither approach and insists on prioritising the fight against terrorism even before the question of guaranteeing the arrival of food and medicine to beleaguered civilians.


OPPOSITION VIEWS: Opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun believes that certain steps should first have been taken to guarantee the success of the talks. Above all, “the UN should pass resolutions requiring the implementation of the two preparative points [the humanitarian issues and ceasefire] and delineating responsibilities in the event of any violations,” he has said.

“It should also issue another resolution delineating a mechanism to ensure the departure of all foreign troops and militias from Syria so that the Syrian people can determine their fate free of outside pressures or force of arms.” Without such provisions, “it will be impossible to reach a solution,” he argues.

Samir Aita, head of the opposition Democratic Platform, has struck a note of cautious optimism. “There is a consensus among the powers involved in the conflict in Syria of the need to engage in the mechanism for a solution,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Iran needs to return to the international community by proving that it can play a constructive role. Through its military intervention and despite the tragedies it has led to, Russia wants to say that it can lay the foundations for the new relations it is building with the region as a whole.”

He continued, “For its part, the US administration wants to demonstrate before the end of its term that its refusal to engage directly in the conflict in Syria has been the correct choice. Of course, the conference could fail like the other attempts to promote a political solution, even with the Security Council Resolution.”

On the fringes of such debates, some dissident senior army officers in Syria maintain that the political track in Geneva is complementary to a military track that is being secretly prepared with US-Russian approval and that will be imposed on all the warring parties. The officers describe it as being composed of a military council made up of members of the opposition and the regime, but excluding the present Syrian president and his close associates.

Together with the UN, this council would supervise the ceasefire and be responsible for the implementation of the military decisions taken by the negotiators in Geneva. According to these sources, these decisions have already been made in advance and are agreed upon by the two superpowers, while the parties present in Geneva will be expected simply to put their stamp of approval on them, even if they may have some limited space for amendments.

In like manner, Syrians from all sides believe that the negotiators and the negotiations carry little weight in determining an end to the crisis because the conflict is no longer one between Syrians but is between other parties fighting it out on Syrian territory. The common impression is that when the major powers agree on a solution they will simply hand it to the negotiators to publicise.

Habib Haddad, a former minister and a member of the opposition, is of this opinion, even if he still advises the opposition that it stands to benefit from the international consensus. Speaking to the Weekly, Haddad said, “The convergence of interests that has occurred between the two major powers on a number of matters that were once causes for dispute overlaps with the interests of the Syrian people, which are to bring a halt to this insane, destructive and futile war.”

He continued, “But that convergence is not based on the interests of the Syrian people and the need to realise the aspirations of their revolution. As a result, the Syrian opposition must work to furnish all the conditions necessary for it to benefit from this temporary consensus in order to serve our strategic aims, which are to bring an end to the totalitarian dictatorship and carry out the transition to democratic life.”

  The crisis in figures

Some 9.8 million Syrians are food insecure, 4.5 million of which live in areas classified by the UN as “hard to reach”

THE SYRIAN conflict has thus far led to the deaths of more than 250,000 people, displaced millions, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing as refugees to Europe.

More than four million Syrians have fled the country. According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, the bulk of the Syrian refugees resides in Turkey, which hosts more than two million registered refugees, and Lebanon, which hosts more than one million. There are 637,776 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

There were at least 7.6 million internally displaced people in Syria as of July 2015. Only six per cent of displaced Syrians head to Europe, according to the UNHCR. Aid agencies say that more than half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

More than 2,000 Syrians had drowned at sea since 2011 trying to reach Europe as of September 2015, according to the UN Human Rights Council.

More than half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed or badly damaged. Water supplies have decreased to less than 50 per cent of their pre-crisis levels. An estimated 9.8 million people are considered to be food insecure.

Five years into the war, Syria is a fragmented country with swathes of land divided between the government led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Islamic State (IS) group and rebels.

As a result, aid groups say they cannot accurately assess the size of the humanitarian crisis because they cannot move between towns without crossing dozens of checkpoints held by the warring factions.

Currently, there are 15 towns and cities under siege in Syria, with more than 400,000 people cut off from humanitarian assistance. The case of Madaya, a rebel-controlled town near the Lebanese border that has been blockaded by both government forces and Hizbullah since July, came to the world’s attention only when some of its residents managed to post images of emaciated children and the elderly on the Internet, many of whom have since died.

Aid work in the country has also been fraught with dangers: 49 volunteers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which works with the Red Cross, have been killed in the past five years.

According to the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, there are now more than 4.5 million people living in areas classified by the UN as “hard to reach”. Pointing to what he said was the starvation of people in the town of Madaya and the sieges of 15 other towns and cities in the country, Zaid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, a top UN human rights official, called the situation “not just a war crime, but also a crime against humanity if it can be proven in court”.

In addition to the Al-Assad regime, nine countries led by the US and Russia are now carrying out bombing raids in Syria.

Russia’s military intervention began in September 2015, targeting non-IS areas controlled by opposition groups that pose a threat to the Syrian regime and tipping the balance in Al-Assad’s favour.

According to the opposition activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 12,517 children and 8,062 women have been killed in the conflict.


The delegates

Jaish Al-Islam chief Aloush in Geneva on Monday

THE SYRIAN REGIME: The delegation consists of 15 diplomats, human rights advocates and intelligence officers. There are no decision-makers within the group. Headed by Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Al-Jaafari, it includes Hussameddin Alaa, Ahmed Arnous, Ahmed Kizbari, Mohamed Khair Al-Akkam, Amal Yazigi, Hassan Al-Bahri, Omar Ossi, Amjad Issa, Ammar Ersan, Jamila Shurbaji, Rafah Breidi, Elias Shahin, Samir Breidi, Osama Ali and Rouaa Shurbaji.


OPPOSITION HIGH NEGOTIATIONS COMMITTEE (HNC): Approved by the majority of Syria’s opposition forces in December 2015, the delegation includes military and civilian figures. It is headed by Colonel Assad Al-Zoubi and includes a representative of the Jaish Al-Islam group, which Russia has failed to designate as a terrorist group. The delegation includes Christian leftist activist George Sabra, Islamist activist and former judge Haitham Maleh, Ahmed Alhariri, Fouad Iliko, Abdulbaset Taweel, Mohamed Abboud, Suheir Atassi, Basma Qudmani, Alis Mufaraj, Abdulmajeed Hamo, Mahmoud Attour, Mohamed Alloush, Nazer Alhakeem and Khalaf Dahood.


RUSSIA’S HANDPICKED OPPOSITION: This includes individuals endorsed by Moscow, which has insisted on participation of the group but has failed to present them as negotiators. The vast majority of Syria’s opposition forces rejects the delegation, the most prominent members of which are Syria’s former deputy prime minister, Kadri Jamil; Paris-based Syrian activist Haytham Manaa; and Ilham Ahmad, head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which includes Kurdish militias that control large parts of northern Syria. Turkey has threatened to boycott the talks if the SDC attends.


CONSULTATIVE GROUPS: There are two consultative delegations. The first is described by the Syrian opposition as including the “opposition to the opposition,” in other words figures who are close to the Al-Assad regime and are known for defending its legitimacy. These figures are officially endorsed by the Syrian government and include Mahmoud Marei, Mais Kridi, Elian Mossad, Berouin Ibrahim, Sohair Sermini, Nawaf Al-Melhem, Tarek Al-Ahad, Jaafar Mashhadia, Adel Neisa and Fateh Jamous. The second delegation includes figures from humanitarian, aid, educational and cultural NGO backgrounds and are endorsed by civil society organisations. Most of the members of this second group are women and represent various ideological orientations.


From Geneva I to Geneva III

Syria’s opposition voted to attend the Geneva talks

30 June 2012 — Geneva I Declaration: The major powers agreed to basic principles for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. One of the declaration’s most important clauses called for “the creation of an interim governing body with full executive authority.”


22 January 2014 — Geneva II Conference: Representatives from the Syrian opposition and the regime met for internationally brokered negotiations intended to follow through on the Geneva I Declaration. However, the regime refused to discuss the creation of an interim governing authority and instead insisted on prioritising the fight against terrorism.


14 November 2015 — Vienna Declaration: The 17 countries that make up the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) issued a new declaration for a resolution to the Syrian crisis. Based on the Geneva I Declaration, it called for a ceasefire, the creation of a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian” governing body, the promulgation of a new constitution and elections held under UN supervision.


18 December 2015 — UN Security Council Resolution 2254: Passed unanimously by the UN Security Council, Resolution 2254 stresses the necessity of a ceasefire, an immediate halt to the bombardment of civilians and the beginning of negotiations. It calls for “the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers,” that would be “non-sectarian in nature” and “formed on the basis of mutual consent” while ensuring the “continuity of governmental institutions.” The resolution endorsed the Geneva and Vienna declarations as frames of reference and stipulated a maximum of six months for the creation of the interim government and 18 months for elections to be held.


1 February 2016 — Geneva 3 Conference: Delegations representing the Syrian regime and opposition meet to implement the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The US and Russia are supervising the talks, in which negotiators must contend with the complexities of interpreting some of the articles of Resolution 2254. These are ambiguously worded, and each party construes them in ways they believe best promote their own interests.

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