Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Failure in Geneva

The sixth round of the Geneva talks on Syria has ended without a breakthrough, with attention fixed on the first visit by the US president to the Middle East

Failure in Geneva
Failure in Geneva

Before US President Donald Trump embarked on his first Middle Eastern tour in Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition and regime attended the sixth round of the Geneva Conference on the conflict in Syria.

While some hoped for a breakthrough in the talks, the reality became clear quickly enough that nothing new would emerge. Some interpreted this as a freezing of the issue while awaiting the outcome of Trump’s Middle Eastern tour as he meets with the leaders of countries that have the most influence on the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The talks were the latest in a series of meetings hosted in the Swiss city and sponsored by international players. At the conference, the Syrian opposition hoped to reach a solution that would end the crisis according to decisions taken at the Geneva I Conference in 2012, which urged the creation of a transitional ruling body in Syria in preparation for a complete political overhaul as the sole way of ending the war.

Four issues were on the agenda of the conference decided by UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura at the end of the fifth round of the talks three months ago: The nature of the transitional ruling body; combatting terrorism; the constitution and elections.

However, de Mistura decided to abandon these priorities and propose instead the formation of a precarious human rights and constitutional committee for Syria based on opaque intentions and goals that are not in line with the Geneva track.

The UN envoy gave the negotiating teams a draft resolution to form this committee, charged with “guaranteeing that there is no constitutional or legal vacuum at any point during the political transition.” De Mistura reserved the right to form and oversee the committee without consultation and to include experts from his office on it.

This would marginalise both the opposition and regime delegations, placing legal and constitutional authorities above them and “relevant countries” to monitor the committee’s work. De Mistura did not specify which countries he had in mind, but the opposition believes that Russia, and perhaps Iran, are behind this body that would dominate the negotiations.

De Mistura said the committee would begin its work “by providing options for drafting a new constitution and holding a national conference”. This means the UN envoy wants to begin with the hardest task, the new constitution, before discussing the transitional governing body which, according to international resolutions, should draft the constitution and call for a national conference.

Once de Mistura had diverted the direction of the Geneva talks with this proposal, observers understood that the conference would not have any valuable results. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the Syrian people, especially now that the UN envoy is experimenting with lame and whimsical political options to resolve one of the greatest crises of modern times.

He is taking advantage of the lack of interest by the US in what has been happening at successive conferences on Syria and of major disputes between the regime, the international and regional powers that support it, and the opposition that insists on removing the regime from the top down.

There is also a lack of consensus and major conflicts of interest between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

The Geneva Conferences thus far have been unedifying, with each side refusing to see eye-to-eye on the issues and placing all the delegations in a vicious circle. The opposition has reluctantly agreed to participate in the negotiations because it knows that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will never agree to a political solution that undermines its domination of Syria or threatens its continuation in power.

Russia and Iran support the regime in this position through diplomatic, political, military and economic means. The opposition also has doubts about the US, the international community and de Mistura himself. But it has agreed to participate in the Geneva talks in order not to be accused of evading discussions of the milestones needed for peace to prevail in Syria.

The regime, meanwhile, with the support of its allies, does not believe in a political solution, or in any compromise, because this would mark the beginning of its downfall. It attends the Geneva meetings because it knows no amount of pressure will force it to accept anything it does not want.

Russia is its safety valve and protector, circumventing key issues at the talks, wasting time on definitions and leading the discussions into a labyrinth or sabotaging positions with its tactics.

De Mistura wants to be known as the man who solved a very complex situation and to take credit for the end of one of the most intertwined and tragic issues of the century. He thus insists on holding more Geneva talks, not caring if anyone of them wins or loses.

He proposes new ideas and experiments with frameworks or stipulations that have nothing to do with reality or even logic but are designed instead to take up time. This is true of his recent proposal to set up a committee that would take control of the talks and decide their outcome, leading the opposition to reject the plan.

De Mistura was forced to withdraw his proposal to avoid a clash, since the armed opposition groups threatened to boycott the talks and the opposition submitted a salvo of questions that it said needed answers.

Some members of the opposition believe de Mistura is leaning towards the Russian viewpoint and is edging towards the spirit of the Astana Conference sponsored by Russia and the Astana Resolutions. Others believe he wants to feel that the Geneva track is still important and to prevent the issue from being hijacked.

“De Mistura is worried that Astana will replace Geneva,” said Eqab Yehia, a member of the opposition. “Geneva could be sidelined, and therefore he is trying to remain active in order to fill the vacuum until there are breakthroughs that force the regime to comply with international resolutions and start on a course towards a political solution according to the Geneva I Declaration,” he said.

For many observers, the US is now the major question mark hanging above the talks as it has decided to change its strategy in the Middle East. They believe it will now take serious steps to deal with major Middle East issues, so that it can impose its vision across the region.

The US is confident it will be victorious over Russia and Iran, and it is certain that US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia is meant to show Washington standing alongside its traditional ally and opposing Iranian ambitions in the region.

However, Syrian expectations are low because international politics have taught them that the US does not care about the conflict in Syria, but only about its interests. The pressure that is needed now should not be limited to removing Al-Assad from power, something that Russia will continue to oppose unless there is an alternative that guarantees its future interests.

It should also include adding the sectarian groups supported by Iran to the US agenda on fighting terrorism. This could lead to a solution to the Syrian crisis and the fall of the regime.

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