Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

At cross- purposes

Contradictions still exist between the positions of key powers on Syria — particularly between Ankara and Tehran — and prospects for peace on the ground, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two regional powers whose presence in Syria has undermined the chances for a political solution to the Syrian question, namely Iran and Turkey, remain an obstacle on the road to a political solution in Syria. The two have led a proxy war on Syrian territory, and lately we saw the emergence of a Turkish-Saudi alliance to counter Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria and Iraq.

The Turkish prime minister headed to Tehran on 5 March. The high-profile visit aims at sounding out the Iranians on a host of regional issues, particularly the Syrian question. Whether it will open the way for an understanding on Syria remains to be seen, although I personally doubt it.

The positions of Turkey and Iran on the future of Syria are diametrically opposed. The two are in support of Security Council Resolution 2254, and have signed the two Vienna statements, but the two remain involved in a regional rivalry that has been consuming the Middle East.

Only a constellation of Arab powers can spare the region from the destructive fallout of this rivalry. But the Arabs have decided to postpone their annual regular summit to July. I feel that the delay is from now to eternity.

The Kremlin said in a press statement on 5 March that the leaders of France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Russia had spoken via videoconference on 4 March, during which they agreed that the cessation of hostilities in Syria has been showing positive results that would lead to the resumption of political talks between the Syrian government and opposition.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed in the videoconference that it is imperative that these talks resume at the earliest possible date.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the British prime minister said that the European leaders who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated their position that the transition process in Syria must lead to a permanent political solution without President Bashar Al-Assad.

She added that the four European leaders made clear to the Russian president that the cessation of hostilities should lead to “permanent peace” that would see a political transition away from “Assad”.

Meanwhile, Paris hosted a meeting for the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany, in addition to Federica Mogherini, special European representative for foreign affairs, 4 March. The meeting centred on humanitarian assistance to besieged areas in Syria. The successful delivery of such assistance to zones under siege in Syria is a true test for the success of the cessation of hostilities, according to French officials.

Between 3-5 March, Paris was the centre of international diplomacy concerning the Syrian question. In addition to the foreign ministers meeting, the French capital hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, who was on an official visit to France. The Syrian question topped the agenda of French-Saudi talks.

It was no coincidence that the coordinator of what is know as the Syrian High Negotiating Committee, Riyad Hijab, was also in town. He speaks for the Riyahd-based Syrian opposition. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, who accompanied the Saudi crown prince, summed up the result of the talks between the Saudis and the French when he said on 5 March that the Syrian president must leave power at the beginning of the transition process and not at its conclusion.

Meanwhile, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, in a statement this week emphasised that whether Al-Assad stays or goes is a Syrian decision and it should be left to the Syrian people. When asked about the American reaction to his statement, John Kirby, the spokesman for the US State Department, said in his daily press briefing on 4 March that the United States continues “to believe that Assad cannot be part of the future of Syria and that we need a government ... in Syria that does not have Bashar Al-Assad at its head.”

Kirby added, “The how and the when in terms of his departure has got to be worked out through political process.” At the same press briefing, he said, “Everybody realises that if all Syrians— diaspora as well — have a chance to vote there is very little chance that Mr Assad is going to be able to stay in power.”

So far, there is an international consensus on the need to resume the Geneva talks between Damascus and the Syrian opposition. De Mistura has called the two sides to resume political talks 9 March, a position supported by both Washington and Moscow. In a phone call on 5 March between the US secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, the two called for the resumption of Geneva 3 in which the Syrians themselves would determine the future of Syria.

If the political talks resume as announced on 9 March, the question of the future role of President Al-Assad will hopefully not become a stumbling block, or a reason to bring negotiations to an abrupt end.

If the two Vienna statements stress that negotiations leading to a political transition in Syria is Syrian-owned and Syrian-led, then let the Syrians themselves determine their own future without interference from outside powers.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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