Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Difficult choices in Geneva

Just because the Syrian opposition has postponed the Geneva negotiations does not mean it will not return, but it does raise unpleasant possibilities, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Negotiations between the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad and the country’s opposition in Geneva were suspended last week, after the regime delegation declared Al-Assad to be “a red line” and refused to discuss the formation of a transitional governing body, as required by international resolutions.

The Syrian opposition refused to begin the negotiations until the regime stops shelling civilians and besieging cities and announces its acceptance of the transitional body. The main Syrian opposition delegation left Geneva, saying it will not return until the Syrian regime has allowed the entry of humanitarian assistance into the country, released detainees and complied with the truce.

The delegation submitted documentation showing that the regime has violated the ceasefire one thousand times since it went into effect on 27 February.

The regime delegation rejected the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers, as stipulated by the Geneva Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, saying the most it will agree to is the inclusion of the opposition and independents in the current government, and emphasising that Al-Assad’s fate is not open for discussion.

The opposition presented its move as a suspension of the talks, not a withdrawal from negotiations, with the goal of giving the international parties more time to pressure the regime and its allies.

However, the stance has had little impact, and Russia continues to support the regime. It has begun to lobby other opposition factions, and has proposed replacing the chief opposition delegation with one that includes the less militant opposition.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has stepped up its violation of the truce and continues to shell opposition-dominated cities, while the US has stood by and watched events without making any gesture of support for the Syrian opposition.

Even UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, overseeing the negotiations, disparaged the opposition’s stance, calling it “a diplomatic show” and saying that the negotiations would resume this week. The opposition criticised de Mistura’s approach to the crisis and reiterated its absence from the talks.

The regime’s negotiating strategy is to waste time to preclude any tangible progress. It has tried to direct the agenda by focussing on the formation of a unity government or the appointment of opposition deputies to Al-Assad. To avoid losing ground, the opposition has had to take the position it has, receiving near unanimous support among revolutionary and opposition circles and in Syrian society.

But the opposition has few cards to play other than continuing its armed opposition. It has no clear alternatives if the Geneva talks fail, and this has led some observers to believe that the opposition may be forced to return to the negotiating table and make concessions.

“The opposition has no alternative,” said Monzer Akbik, a member of the opposition coalition. “The international sponsors, in particular Moscow and Washington, will likely lobby for the continuation of the political process in Geneva and will also pressure the opposition’s regional sponsors to persuade them to return to the negotiating table.”

Said Akbik, “Washington clearly has no desire to use its political and military influence to impose a solution, although it is capable of doing so. It continues to bet on the military opposition holding its position, particularly since it is the main engine for political change in Syria, even more than the political opposition.”

Syrian opposition figure Louay Safi believes that the opposition has little choice but to continue the negotiations.

“If the opposition delegation continues to refuse to engage in the Geneva negotiations, the war will continue, having repercussions on the regional and international order and putting US relations with its allies in the Levant in jeopardy. This is the only means of pressure in the hands of the opposition,” Safi said.

De Mistura seems to have realised the size of the danger threatening the Geneva talks, and has called for a meeting of foreign ministers from the International Syria Support Group, which includes international and regional parties, “to preserve the truce and advance the stalled negotiations and aid efforts”.

He compared the talks to “a three-legged table” that might collapse at any moment.

If the opposition does not return to the negotiating table, there are four possible scenarios. The Russians might infiltrate the opposition’s Higher Negotiations Committee, the sole negotiating body, and pressure it to include other Syrian factions that are closer or better disposed towards the regime or have received the Russian stamp of approval.

The idea of a political solution could collapse or be postponed pending more propitious circumstances, or until both sides lower their demands. This would mean that the war, which has already killed 400,000 people, according to de Mistura’s estimates, would continue and Syria would be further destroyed.

The third scenario is the possibility of a federal solution or the partition of Syria. Based on the situation on the ground, Syria could be partitioned into three statelets or federal regions, one controlled by the Kurds in northern Syria, another under Alawite control in the west, and a third under the sway of the Islamic State (IS) group in the east.

The military opposition would be scattered throughout these areas. There have been indications on the ground that the borders of a federal state are indeed being drawn up with Russian and Iranian firepower and American silence.

The final scenario, the most likely, assumes that the superpowers will take action to prevent the failure of the negotiations and pressure the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies to respect the truce, allow humanitarian assistance into besieged areas and release detainees, even if temporarily.

There have been early indications pointing to this scenario, and the UN has decided to appoint a coordinator, set to begin work immediately, to investigate the fate of Syrian citizens held by the regime.

However, even if the superpowers favour this possibility, de Mistura has been seeking to complicate matters. Drowning the opposition in detail, he has demanded answers to 25 questions, asking whether the transitional governing body will include individuals or institutions, what its prerogatives and decision-making mechanisms will be, and what the composition of its legislative branch will be.

Who will oversee the security apparatus? Will there be a military council? Will the security, judicial and financial council included in the transitional governing body operate together or independently? Will the constitution be suspended, a new constitution or constitutional declaration be drafted, or the constitution of 1950 reinstated? How will stability be guaranteed? Will political parties be dissolved? Will Syrian emigrés be allowed to return?

All these questions will require months of negotiations to answer, meaning that negotiations could drag on for years before agreement is reached.

To prevent Syria from becoming a kind of black hole attracting terrorists and mercenaries from around the world, the superpowers may have only one option, and they should embrace it without delay.

They should bring their influence to bear to rapidly implement the Geneva Declaration and form a transitional governing body with full powers that includes both the opposition and regime, provided it does not include regime figures with blood on their hands.

They must force all the parties to accept this body. Otherwise, events will swiftly overtake them, and this will likely entail more violence.

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