Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Geneva 8 begins

Most Syrian opposition observers believe that this week’s eighth round of the Geneva Conference on Syria will fail to produce meaningful results, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

Geneva 8 begins
Geneva 8 begins

اقرأ باللغة العربية


The recent meeting of the Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh concluded with the creation of a new Higher Negotiating Commission (HNC) and the formulation of a political strategy for the negotiating phase.

The results disappointed Syrians opposed to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad because they lowered the bar of their demands, relinquishing the explicit rejection of the participation of Al-Assad in the transitional phase and accepting the beginning of negotiations without preconditions, including those in the international resolutions on the Syrian crisis.

The Syrian opposition agreed to the inclusion of the Moscow Platform, a group that claims to be in the opposition but that is close to Moscow, subscribes to proposals convenient for the Syrian regime, and insists on keeping the personal fates of Al-Assad and his coterie off the negotiating table.

The acceptance of this platform has caused a rift in the opposition, with the vast majority of opposition groups rejecting what they regard as the unacceptable concessions made by the Moscow Platform, forming a wedge in the opposition ranks that will undermine their performance in the negotiations.

The concluding statement of the Riyadh II Meeting held that the negotiations should be unconditional, that all subjects should be open to discussion, and that no party should have the right to set conditions, including on matters concerning the form of government, its powers, and the status of the president and prime minister.

It also said that the transitional body that will oversee the transitional process cannot be created unless Al-Assad and the members of his regime step down at the beginning of the transitional phase. However, this was not couched as a condition as it had been in previous statements, and it is therefore seen as a concession that will make it possible for Al-Assad and his regime to continue into the transitional phase. 

The newly expanded HNC was the product of Russian pressure, Saudi willingness to accommodate Russia, and the approval of Syrian opposition factions caught between Russian influence in Syria and the passivity of Washington. The latter has shrunk from supporting the opposition as fully as had been hoped.

The creation of the new HNC came ahead of the Geneva 8 Conference on Syria on 28 November. Russia wants this round to mark the beginning of direct negotiations, asking the participants to address issues such as the constitution, early elections and the transitional phase.

Hardly in a position to refuse a Russian request or to anger the Russian military that saved the regime from collapse, the Syrian government in Damascus has agreed to discuss the constitution, the elections and the principles governing a solution.

But agreement is one thing and coming to terms with the opposition over these questions is an entirely different matter. The regime continues to reject all demands to amend the 2012 constitution, which was tailored to grant Al-Assad unchecked executive, legislative and judicial authority.

The regime will not agree to, or even discuss, radical political reform. The most it has been willing to concede is to include representatives of the opposition in the cabinet and in parliament in the framework of what it has termed “coalition government”. However, these institutions remain completely paralysed given the security apparatus’s total control of every aspect of life in Syria.

As a result, Syrian observers believe that the eighth round of the Geneva talks will most likely fail to produce serious results. The regime will continue to dig in its heels and “swamp people in details,” as the Syrian foreign minister said six years ago and as the regime has since carried out to the fullest possible extent.

The regime believes it has won and that the danger has passed thanks to Russian and Iranian protection. Its thoughts are now on the beginning of the reconstruction with help from Tehran and Beijing, on sustaining the fight against terrorism with help from Russia, and on undermining any prospect of a comprehensive political settlement, or deferring it for as long as possible.

However, the regime may be making two miscalculations. The first is that Russia will support it to the bitter end. The assistant Russian foreign minister told UN Special Representative to Syria Staffan de Mistura on his visit to Moscow last week that Russia was “considering the possibility of discussing the fate of the Syrian president”, and this makes it clear that this is not the case.

The second mistake is to think that the reconstruction will be easy and a means to stimulate the economy. In fact, it will be impossible to begin the reconstruction as long as the West and the US above all continues to maintain that it cannot commence without a just solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Russian attitude towards the Geneva Conference is not all that different to that of the regime. It sees it as a waste of time and its sole intent is to void it of substance. Towards this end it has invented the Astana Meetings and, more recently, those in Sochi.

The former have largely succeeded in shifting the solution to the Syrian crisis away the first Geneva communiqué of 2012, which calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers, and towards a framework that is not explicit about the creation of a transitional governing body or stripping the current president of his powers.

Russia has every reason to be satisfied with the results of the Riyadh II Meeting. The new HNC has been inoculated with a dose of “soft opposition” and will most likely agree to take part in Moscow’s planned Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi.

 This “People’s Congress”, which the regime will also attend, has no clear goal apart from breaking down the barriers between the opposition and the regime, rehabilitating the latter, and compelling the former to accept the continuation of the regime and the principle of “gradual change”.

While Damascus has agreed to Moscow’s proposals, people familiar with how the regime works know that it will not change. It is skilled in the art of giving promises and then breaking them. It continues to refuse to discuss the constitution “outside of official frameworks”, meaning the current parliament, which is appointed by the security agencies.

It refuses to discuss a political settlement “as long as there is a single inch of land outside the control of the state”, as one senior official in Damascus put it. Most likely, the regime thinks it can turn to Iran to counter Russian pressures on the negotiations.

None of the relevant regional or international powers appears interested in discussing political change in Syria. The understanding reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump on 11 November omitted any mention of the government and focused on constitutional reforms and elections.

The joint statement issued by Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the end of their summit in Sochi last week made no mention of the UN-sponsored Geneva process and focused on the envisioned Syrian People’s Congress in Sochi.

“It appears that the Russians and Americans have agreed to give UN Security Council Resolution 2254 precedence over the first Geneva communiqué. The resolution speaks of the need to begin constitutional reforms and to hold free and fair elections under UN supervision. These are at the centre of the understanding between Trump and Putin over a first step towards the beginning of a solution to the Syrian crisis without ‘breaking anyone’s arms’,” one Syrian opposition figure said.

“But the Syrian regime will use every means at its disposal to avoid having to commit to a set timeframe for the processes mentioned in Resolution 2254. Russia will support it in this in the hope of pushing through a new negotiating approach in the Syrian National Congress in Sochi in December, thereby imposing on the Americans factors agreed by the regime and the opposition,” he said.

There is a race between the Geneva process supported by Washington and the Sochi process supported by Moscow. Moscow is eager to achieve a breakthrough in order to be in a stronger position than the US. However, this will be difficult to produce because Russia supports the Astana process which the Syrian opposition is against and which Washington is not keen on.

 There are considerable differences within the HNC on whether to take part in the Congress in Sochi. The Syrian negotiating body could well implode if it decides to go to Sochi without the approval of all its constituent parties, and it is difficult to conceive that the UN Security Council would grant the Sochi process any form of legitimacy.

The key powers in the council would never agree to elevate a single Syrian dialogue into a fully-fledged process that could rival the official Geneva talks.

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