Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Destination unknown

With opposition groups at Geneva II aiming higher than the gains they have made on the ground, a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict may recede into a distant horizon, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the first time since the turmoil in Syria began in 15 March 2011, the Syrian government and the foreign backed-opposition sat around the same negotiating table in Montreux, Switzerland, on 22 January 2014. The objective of the conference — dubbed Geneva II — is to carry out the measures referred to in the final communiqué of the Action Group for Syria dated 30 June 2012.

Last September, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2118, which endorsed in paragraph 16 the final communiqué and set out a number of measures to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The key measure is the “establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

In the following paragraph, the Security Council called for the “convening, as soon as possible, of an international conference on Syria to implement the Geneva Communiqué, and calls upon all Syrian parties to engage seriously and constructively at the Geneva Conference on Syria, and underscores that they should be fully representative of the Syrian people and committed to the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué and to the achievement of stability and reconciliation.”

One year and a half separates the Geneva Communiqué and the convening of the Geneva II Conference during which the number of people killed in Syria has reached the tragic number of 120,000, with damages estimated at $21billion dollars, and with eight million Syrian refugees and displaced.

The conference is the fruit of a Russian-American understanding that came out of a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart, John Kerry, last May. This understanding was underscored and given a greater impetus by the Framework Agreement between Russia and the United States on the elimination of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons last September. As a matter of fact, Security Council Resolution 2118 mainly deals with the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.

One of the major stumbling blocks facing the Geneva Conference is the interpretation of the terms of reference of the conference. The Syrian government has announced that it is taking part to reach an agreement to fight “terrorism” in Syria. For its part, the foreign-backed Syrian opposition, that does not represent all opposition groups, nor the multitude of armed groups, is attending to discuss the departure of President Bashar Al-Assad from power. The Group of 11, the hard core of what is known as the “Friends of Syria Group”, had met in Paris a few days before the conference and agreed that it backs the foreign-backed Syrian opposition in its insistence that the Syrian president would have no place in Syria’s future. There is nothing in the Geneva Communiqué that refers, implicitly or explicitly, to such an outcome. To bridge the gap between the two opposing interpretations of the terms of reference of the Geneva Conference will be a very serious challenge facing negotiators in Geneva.

Realities on the ground have dramatically changed in the last 18 months, not only in Syria but also neighbouring countries, mainly Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

In Syria, the army has regained the upper hand militarily. On the other hand, divisions within the armed groups and military confrontations among various armed Islamist groups have weakened the foreign-backed opposition represented by the Coalition of the Forces of the Revolution and the Opposition, commonly known as the “Doha Coalition”. Lately, various Islamist groups formed the Islamic Front to fight Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front, another armed group affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

In the last month and a half, 1,400 fighters from these groups were killed. That prompted Ayman Al-Zawahri, leader of Al-Qaeda, to call on them to stop fighting each other and concentrate their efforts on toppling the Syrian regime. To make matters worse for the Syrian opposition, the National Syrian Council, called the “Istanbul Council” and controlled by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, withdrew from the “Doha Coalition” days before 22 January, to protest its participation in the Geneva Conference.

The Syrian drama has left its mark on the political and security situation in Lebanon. And the alignment is parallel to the positions of the regional powers as to how to solve the Syrian crisis politically, or militarily. Hizbullah is siding with Syria as is the Iranian government. The forces of 14 March, led by Al-Hariri family, is supporting the opposition, to tow the Saudi position. This confrontation has become not only regional but has turned, unfortunately and dangerously, into a sectarian confrontation between the Sunnis and the Shias across the Middle East. Last week, for example, a new terrorist group was set up in Lebanon called Al-Nusra Front in Lebanon — affiliated to Al-Qaeda, along with its sister group in neighbouring Syria.

Turkey, one of the main supporters of the armed rebellion in Syria, has seen serious political deterioration within. From the street demonstrations last summer to the corruption scandal that has gripped Turkish politics ever since 17 December last year. One reason behind the growing disenchantment of Turkish public opinion with the Erdogan government is the accusation that Turkish policy concerning Syria has put the security and stability of Turkey at risk.

The absence of Iran from the Geneva Conference is another roadblock facing the implementation of any agreement that may come out of the conference.

Iran, as a regional power that has large stakes in the outcome of the conference, and as a main backer for the Syrian government, should be part of the solution and not an outsider. Any future setup in Syria must have good relations with Iran. Besides, I doubt if any solution to the Syrian crisis could hold for long if Iranian interests are not guaranteed in such an outcome. To view the toppling of the Syrian regime as a prelude to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East is short-sighted and would prove counterproductive in the long term, unless there would be a change of regime in Tehran, a highly unlikely scenario for the foreseeable future.

Last Sunday, the secretary general of the United Nations extended an invitation to Iran to attend the conference, but less than 24 hours later had to withdraw it under pressure from the US administration and the Syrian Coalition, which threatened to withdraw from the conference if Iran was to be present.

Washington had said that Iran could attend if it accepted that the political solution that would come out of Geneva II would not see President Al-Assad in power. The Iranians countered that the future of Al-Assad should be decided by the Syrian people in democratic elections. A few days later, Kerry spoke at the Davos gathering in Switzerland and reaffirmed the American position that Al-Assad has no place in Syria’s political future. Otherwise, he insisted, the armed rebellion would not stop.

The irony at Geneva is that the Syrian Coalition and its international and regional backers want to force a solution that they have failed so far to impose militarily on the ground. If this logic persists, I am not sure that the Geneva II Conference will be the right venue to bring the Syrian tragedy to an end and save Syria from dismemberment and destruction.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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