Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Bumpy ride for Geneva talks

The second round of the Geneva II talks is about to begin, but few are optimistic about it, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The first round of negotiations between the Syrian opposition and government at the Geneva II conference made no headway to mention. Indeed, it only served to chisel the resentment felt by both sides.

For its part, the Syrian opposition is demanding a full implementation of the final declaration of Geneva I, which calls for the formation of an interim governing body with full authority to run the country. The declaration also involves some trust-building measures, including a ceasefire, release of political detainees, and humanitarian relief to civilians caught in conflict areas.

The government’s negotiators didn’t seem too keen on any of the above. They ruled out any discussion of Bashar Al-Assad’s fate, and at least initially dismissed the Geneva I declaration as irrelevant.

The government’s negotiators also said that any deal reached in Geneva II would have to go through a referendum back home. A working paper that they proposed for discussion focussed not on regime change, but on the fight against terror, a term that the regime is now using to brand all its opponents.

It was only when pressured by the sponsors of the conference that the government delegation agreed to discuss the provisions of the Geneva I declaration.

In these provisions, the formation of an interim governing body is number seven on the list, and the regime’s negotiators seem to be determined to spend months debating the first six provisions, instead of proceeding to the real issue at hand.

Following the talks, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem spoke derogatively of the opposition, describing its members as “immature”. He added that, “There is no moderate opposition in Syria, only terror groups.”

When asked about the regime’s continued bombardment of opposition-held areas, Al-Muallem said: “How do you expect us to deal with terrorists? Should we be sending them text messages?”

Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Al-Miqdad was also dismissive of the opposition’s negotiators. He said that the opposition delegation had no “patriotic feelings” and consisted of “agents for foreign powers”.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi asserted that the regime was not inclined to make concessions to the opposition. “They will not win through politics what they failed to win through war,” he remarked.

The opposition’s negotiators, meanwhile, remain cautiously optimistic. But some have warned that unless the sponsors of the conference bring pressure to bear on Damascus, there is no point in talking.

Ahmad Jarba, chief of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), accused the regime of importing terrorists from abroad and unleashing them against the country’s minorities.

Jarba voiced hope that unless the regime comes to a deal, the international community would arm the resistance.

In the first round of talks, the government’s negotiators not only refused to discuss the interim phase, but also steered away from other pressing issues, including the ceasefire, detainees, and humanitarian corridors.

When asked about the 700 women and children currently besieged in Homs, the government’s negotiators described them as terrorists.

Throughout the talks, the regime continued to shell cities with airplanes and artillery. Some say that the shelling got fiercer after the talks started.

Nearly 800 civilians have died in shelling since the Geneva II talks started.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is coordinating the talks, admitted that, “The gap between the two sides is still wide.”

NCSROF member Louay Safi, who is taking part in the talks, hopes that negotiations will lead to the formation of an interim governing body.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Safi said: “We have discussed the formation of an interim governing body. We also stressed the need to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2118 [calling for] a ceasefire, release of detainees, and the lifting of siege on cities.”

According to Safi, the regime will have sooner or later to discuss the formation of the governing body.

“The regime [negotiators] tried to avoid talking about the governing body, but in day four admitted that it is central to the Geneva framework of talks.”

Safi predicted that, “The regime will have to talk in the next round about the formation of the governing body and to discuss it in detail.”

Riyad Darar, a key figure in the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), which stayed out of the conference, is less optimistic.

Speaking to the Weekly, Darar said: “The Geneva talks will not achieve much. The first round didn’t even touch on violence, release of detainees, or humanitarian assistance.”

The best that the conference can produce, Darar said, is a deal resembling Al-Taef Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989.

Faris Mashaal Tammo, a key figure in the Syrian Kurdish Revolutionary Council, has few hopes for the conference either.

Speaking to the Weekly, Tammo said: “The Geneva Conference is a political step that had to be taken, but it has few chances of success.”

According to Tammo, the conference is likely to produce “a long and intricate series of conferences in Geneva, none of which will achieve any progress. The Syrian crisis is not one of conflicting political agendas … but of a popular uprising against a ruling mafia that made a career of killing and destruction”.

The conduct of the government’s delegation during the Geneva II conference is hardly surprising. In all likelihood, the regime will keep dragging the talks out while avoiding the central point, which is the formation of an interim governing body with full authority, in keeping with the final declaration of Geneva I.

Government negotiators, however, may at one point propose a hybrid government of a nature that would consolidate the gains of the regime rather than ensure its departure.

Sources of the Syrian opposition recall 2005, when a firm ultimatum to Damascus made it pull out its troops from Lebanon almost overnight. This is the kind of pressure they hope the Americans and Russians will exert on Al-Assad.

Geneva II, opposition members argue, will fail unless the Americans and Russians, who were in constant touch during the talks, decide to act.

The real talks in Geneva are not the ones taking place between the Syrian adversaries, but the ones taking place behind closed doors between the Americans and the Russians, some say.

So what if Washington and Moscow fail to act in unison? Some expect the Syrian crisis to drag on, with the Alawites perhaps seceding into a state of their own. Should this happen, Syria may be haunted by factional fighting for years to come.


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