Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The troubled path to Geneva

Neither the regime nor the opposition are enthusiastic about the upcoming peace conference dubbed “Geneva II”, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, is shuttling across the region to get everyone prepared for Geneva II — a gathering intended to end Syria’s civil war. The international envoy started his visit in Cairo and is expected to visit Damascus, Tehran, Riyadh and Ankara before his regional tour is over.

Brahimi is not making many promises for now. In fact he is not even revealing the time of the conference. Even when the Arab League’s secretary general, Nabil Al-Arabi, said that Geneva II was slated for 23 November, Brahimi was careful to dampen any speculation, saying that invitations were not yet sent and that the date remains undecided.

The international envoy added that Geneva II is not likely to be held unless the opposition shows up in force. The opposition, he stated, has to make its attendance “convincing”, in the sense of sending delegates who can truly pose as representatives of a substantial portion of the Syrian public.

Brahimi’s job is strewn with difficulties, not least because both the regime and the opposition want to know what the conference will lead to. So, both are demanding guarantees on the end results of the conference, which neither Brahimi nor anyone can provide.

Some groups in the Syrian opposition are eager to attend, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), which mostly represents the opposition living at home. Meanwhile, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) is so far refusing to attend.

The NCCDC is looking on the bright side of things. Perhaps there are no guarantees about the outcome of Geneva II, its members say, but at least it will be based on the communiqué issued by Geneva I, which was acceptable to the opposition. In general, the NCCDC sees the upcoming conference as a historic moment that deserves its full attention.

The NCSROF is more sceptical. It wants international guarantees that the conference will lead to the regime’s removal from power. It is a position that is based more on principles rather than on realpolitik, and knowing the intensity of international pressures that are being exerted, it may have to be reversed.

The Syrian regime also wants guarantees. Unless it is reassured that it will survive, albeit in a reduced form, after the conference, it may not have a motive to attend. Just before Brahimi arrived in Damascus, Syrian officials said that they refuse to sit down with those who took up arms or called for foreign intervention, which is mostly what the opposition has been doing for two years or so.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim was emphatic. He said that the regime was not willing to negotiate except with licensed parties operating from inside Syria. Needless to say, none of the credible opposition groups is “licensed”.

The regime is in a debacle. It knows that if it goes to Geneva II it will have to acknowledge at least some of the provisions of the final communiqué of Geneva I, which — among other things — endorses the right for demonstrations. This will not be easy for the regime to accept, since all know that for the first year of the revolution, the regime had no qualms mowing down demonstrators with live ammunition. If protests are allowed freely, the regime may not be able to hold on to power for long.

Considering the international resolve to hold Geneva II, the regime, as well as a major section of the opposition, is likely to show up. But will they be able to talk?

If both the regime and the opposition show up, it will be a delicate game of nerves and endurance. Both will have to fight hard for their positions, perhaps make some concessions, but continue to talk. And if the gathering stumbles, it will be in each side’s interest to show that this was the fault of its adversaries.

It will be hard to make preconditions for the gathering. For example, if the opposition keeps insisting that the conference should result in regime change, it will give the regime the pretext it needs not to attend. So for now, at least, both sides know that it is better to go and then undermine the conference, rather than not go at all.

Still, there are many in the ranks of the opposition who think that Geneva II will be an exercise in futility.

NCSROF member Kamal Al-Labwanai said that the very concept of Geneva is erroneous. The Syrian opposition, he said, should bring the murderers and criminals of the regime to trial, not to talk to them.

Haitham Manna, head of the NCCDC, said he was ready to attend. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Manna explained the motives for this decision. “According to what the Russians told us, there is no programme for negotiations, prior plan, or ready conclusions. The results depend on what the Syrians will decide. Geneva II will be slow moving, and we have some international guarantees that the declaration of Geneva I will be implemented,” Manna stated.

The problem, Manna added, is in the powers of Al-Assad, not his presence. “As soon as his powers become symbolic, then he has to finish the presidential term or leave office,” he added.

“This doesn’t mean that we agree to let Al-Assad go home, for we have to include accountability in the interim phase,” Manna pointed out.

NCSROF media office chief Khaled Al-Saleh disagrees. Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Saleh said: “Our position is clear. We support a political solution that guarantees democratic change in Syria. But we cannot go to Geneva II without having the necessary guarantees that our demands will be met.”

Al-Saleh said that the Syrians took nobody’s advice before starting the revolution and were not going to be told what to do now.

“We will decide our own fate. And when we ask the international community for help, this is only because it is the duty of the international community to maintain international peace and security and not allow a terrorist regime to kill its own people.”

Al-Saleh also made it clear that only NCSROF is entitled to attend the conference. “NCSROF is the sole legitimate representative [of the Syrian opposition],” he said.

According to Salem, any negotiations should be based on the clear goal of building a modern state with a civilian constitution. “We are not against national dialogue, but against pointless dialogue,” he said.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Zoheir Salem told the Weekly that the future of Syria should be decided by all Syrians — except “the gang of murderers... with its army and security backers”.

The opposition, it has to be mentioned, was caught off-guard by the recent US-Russian agreement to remove chemical weapons from the regime’s control in return for Washington calling off a possible military strike on Al-Assad’s regime. The opposition, having pinned its hopes on international intervention, now feels betrayed by that deal.

But some opposition members are willing to see a glimmer of hope in current developments.

UN Security Council Resolution 2118 on Syria’s chemical weapons refrained from condemning the regime. But — as some opposition members pointed out — it called for the punishment of those responsible for the use of such weapons, a clause that may open the door for the trial of Al-Assad and his top brass.

Also, the UN Security Council embraced the Geneva I final communiqué, which envisions a framework for a solution involving a transitional government with full powers, one that may contain members of the current regime and the opposition.

As for the regime, Geneva II is going to place it on the hot seat. Simply by showing up, the regime will have to address Kofi Annan’s six-point peace proposal, which calls for a ceasefire, release of detainees, press freedom, humanitarian access, freedom of protests, and a political transition.

If the Damascus regime accepts these points, it will be writing its own epitaph — something it is clearly loathed to do.

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