Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The third Vienna meeting

Despite appearing to focus on the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, Saudi, Qatari and even American officials seem locked on the fate of Bashar Al-Assad, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 18 October and 14 November last year, Vienna hosted two important meetings on Syria that led to the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 on 18 December 2015. This resolution has become the cornerstone of the Geneva proximity talks that were launched in January.

The talks brought the Syrian government and the opposition represented by what has been designated as the Higher Negotiating Committee, or the Riyadh delegation (as the pro-Saudi and pro-Qatari opposition in Syria is called) to the negotiating table. This opposition shuttles regularly between Riyadh, Doha and Ankara.

As a result of joint American and Russian diplomatic efforts, a “cessation of hostilities” went into effect on 27 February. It held, and the level of violence in Syria, save in the areas held by both the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front, decreased by almost 70 per cent.

The cessation of hostilities allowed the much-needed delivery of humanitarian assistance to various areas under siege.

The United Nations has designated 18 besieged zones within Syria that need urgent humanitarian and medical aid.

The ceasefire in Syria broke down in Aleppo. During the second round of proximity talks in Geneva, some groups, including Ahrar Al-Sham and Geish Al-Islam, fought with Al-Nusra Front to roll back advances by the Syrian army. Their international and regional supporters gave them international and political cover to achieve gains on the battlefield a political calculus that has not proven credible, nor sustainable in Syria.

This situation on the ground gave rise to hectic contacts between Washington and Moscow to decree another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, which was renewed twice. In the midst of these contacts, the French government, in order to provide the Riyadh opposition with breathing space, called for a meeting in Paris on 9 May, which brought together countries backing the opposition.

The objective of the meeting ran counter to the letter and spirit of UNSC Resolution 2254, which provides a roadmap for a political transition in Syria in a period not to exceed 18 months, beginning January 2016, and without mentioning the name of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

One of the leading proponents for the overthrow of Al-Assad is the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, who was present in the Paris meeting. He has become so outspoken, and undiplomatic as well, in this respect that one is doubtful that any future meetings for the group of countries called the International Syria Support Group can deliver.

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, published on 10 May, he said that the participants at the Paris meeting are working for a political transition in Syria on the basis of the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012. He talked about the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers, the drafting of a new constitution, elections and, finally, a government without Al-Assad.

The Saudi minister said on several occasions that the Syrian president would leave power either through political talks or, failing that, by force. In the same interview he stressed that there are only two solutions in Syria right now. The first option is to increase the pressure on Al-Assad and his allies (meaning the Russians and the Iranians).

If these pressures do not lead to the desired end namely, the departure of Al-Assad from power option two would be to provide the opposition fighting the Syrian army with more military assistance. In other words, more destruction in Syria and more instability and insecurity across the Middle East.

Whether the United States shares this extreme point of view is unclear. In some instances, various American high officials talk about the departure of the Syrian president sometime in the future. In other instances they don’t make such a departure a condition for the success of the political transition in Syria. It is, in fact, a question of priorities.

But the impression observers get is that Washington has not decided yet whether its strategic priority is to degrade and defeat IS or the overthrow of the Syrian regime. Another question mark concerning the American position relates to the degree of cooperation with the Russians in Syria. Is it tactical or strategic?

To put it differently, is the United States using the Russians to bring down Al-Assad, ultimately, or is it working with the Russians for a much broader strategic aim, which is to defeat IS? Or is Washington trying to achieve both? And if the latter is the most likely, is it doable?

What we know is that President Barack Obama announced on 25 April that he will send another 250 American troops to Syria. They are to join the 50 Special Operations troops previously deployed. According to Obama, these additional troops are not “going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting the local forces that continue to drive [Daesh] back.”

The day the American president announced this decision he was meeting across the Atlantic, in Hanover, Germany, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi. The Western leaders shared a “growing concern” that the increasing “violations of the agreed cessation of hostilities by the regime” and the “continued obstruction of humanitarian access” undermine “efforts to bring relief to the Syrian people”.

Furthermore, they called on the parties to the conflict to respect the “cessation, and contribute to the success of the Geneva talks on a political transition in line with the Geneva Communique”. The Hanover summit called on “those with influence on the parties to the conflict to press them to refrain from any actions that put the cessation and political talks at risk”.

The United States and Russia are expected to co-chair a third Vienna meeting, scheduled for 17 May. According to the spokesperson of the US State Department, speaking on 13 May, the third Vienna meeting is “designed to reaffirm ... and strengthen the cessation of hostilities, to discuss ways in which we can better ensure humanitarian access, and ... to expedite a negotiated political transition there”.

Will the third Vienna meeting open the way for a serious and credible negotiating process to carry out the provisions of Security Council Resolution 2254 in its entirety, or will it be another attempt like the Paris meeting to bring down the Syrian regime?

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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