Geneva II: What if We Set Expectations REALLY Low?

January 24, 2014
The people of opposition-controlled Kafranbel, Syria, hold a protest banner on January 24, 2014

The goals of the Syria peace talks in Montreux are fairly straight forward: negotiate an end to armed conflict which has cost well over 120,000 lives and has displaced a huge percentage of the population. As I argued in my overview of the conference, there is absolutely no chance for success. So far, everything that has transpired at the conference is just evidence that I was right.

The Assad regime came out swinging, as they maintained that the ‘fate of Syria will be determined by Syrians,’ a catch-phrase which means that Bashar al Assad will run for reelection, the vote will likely be rigged, and Assad will win. According the the Syrian delegation, the opposition is made up of terrorists backed by outside parties, and no country has the right to interfere with the regime’s counter-terrorism operation. According to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad, only after terrorism had been defeated and the humanitarian crisis was ended could a transition even be considered. The problem — since the first protests, and long before the insurgency, the Syrian regime has defined anyone who disagreed with it as a terrorist.

The Syrian opposition, and Secretary of State John Kerry, maintained that the whole purpose of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I, and a central tenet of Geneva I is the establishment of a transitional government that does not include Assad.  In fact, on Thursday John Kerry told Al Arabiya that Assad was “not ready for a solution” to the crisis. On a Reddit AMA/AYA, a representative of the Syrian National Coalition spelled out the opposition’s main goals:

Our main objectives of Geneva 2 are to restore humanitarian corridors to all Syrians, to break the siege in areas which Assad has continued to blockade (Yarmouk, Ghouta, Daraya, Mouadhamiya), and to form a transitional government representative of the people of Syria with full executive, military powers. These cannot, and will not be negotiated upon….

Geneva 2 is about transferring power. This has been the goal since the very beginning.

These positions are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled. To make matters worse, Friday’s negotiations opened with a pledge from the opposition that transition needs to be negotiated before anything else. The Syrian government has now threatened to leave the talks by Saturday if things don’t gt “serious.” The conference is falling apart.

Not the best beginning, but none of this should come as a surprise. Meanwhile, in the media room, Assad supporters and detractors held shouting matches, while the fireworks were being exchanged inside the convention, outside on the streets of Montreux, Assad supporters beat opposition supporters with sticks:

And Western journalists witnessed Assad supporters attack Syrian journalists:

No shoes were thrown, but so far the conference could not be going much worse.

All of this begs the question — if the international community sets its expectations really, REALLY low, could something good come out of Geneva II?

What is impossible

Let’s just get this out of the way. There will be no transitional government established, for reasons listed above. A grand ceasefire will not be established because the regime thinks it is fighting terrorists, the fighters under the SNC’s influence don’t trust Assad, and the fighters who are not under the SMC’s influence would not abide by a ceasefire in any unified sense. Once the first bullet flies, the ceasefire will fall apart. We’ve seen it before, and all the players at the table know it. There won’t be humanitarian corridors established, because this would require a ceasefire, and possibly a no-fly zone, and Assad’s airforce is the main threat to most of opposition-controlled Syria. And so, what most of the world is looking for, relief from the widespread violence and growing humanitarian crisis, will simply not happen.

The ball is in Russia’s court… again

There is one, and only one, wild card at this conference, and it is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Unlike the regime, the opposition, or even John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov is the only one who has maintained a major role in the Syria process while still keeping the intransigent rhetoric to a minimum. For instance, in remarks made thus far at Montreux, Lavrov has largely dodged the central question of whether Assad should stay or go. According to opposition leader Ahmed Jarba, Lavrov told the SNC in a meeting last week that “Russia is not sticking strongly to Assad” but that the problem should be negotiated “between Syrians themselves through a political process.” In fact, Lavrov has barely mentioned Assad’s name. Instead, the Russian Foreign Minister has tried to position itself not as the advocate for the Assad regime, but as the go-between, the bridge between those who want Assad to go and those who want Assad to stay.

This is mostly just talk, and it would be easy to dismiss this gesture. Assad has no interest in going, and despite the fact that Assad (and Hezbollah, and Iran, which are propping up the regime) remain defiant on this point, Russia has actually increased its supply of arms to the Assad regime. Assad doesn’t want to go, and Russia doesn’t really care.

But Russia is opening the door for potential, unlikely, and really tiny changes inside Syria.

Local ceasefires and relief efforts?

While a nationwide ceasefire is impossible, missed in the headlines recently is that several areas, under intense regime siege, have negotiated local ceasefires. So far, these are mostly small communities around Damascus that have been brutally shelled, bombed, rocketed, and starved. We’ve seen these before (Kafer Takharim, Yabroud, Moadamiyah) and each time it is the regime that has broken the ceasefire. And despite the fact that in Moadamiyah, a nun betrayed the people she helped “save“, desperation often creates results. A local ceasefire may be possible for the international community to negotiate.

But where?

For the last year, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, Yarmouk, has been under attack by regime forces. The Palestinians who were once on the sideline began to protest, and vocally, against the regime. As it turns out, in a civil war, internal refugee camps are not a priority for the delivery of food and medicine. With things getting worse each day, many, but not all, Palestinian groups in the camp turned their back on Assad in protest. This led to internal fighting between Palestinians who supported Assad and those who did not. Ultimately, the Assad regime intervened, sending tanks and troops to put down the mini uprising. Rebel groups from the outside, in coordination with Palestinian fighters on the inside, eventually threw the regime out. But the Yarmouk camp is now more like a Japanese island in World War II, bombarded from all sides with nowhere to run and no desire to surrender. Now, the camp is completely blockaded by Assad forces, and a starvation crisis has  finally gotten bad enough to make it to the headlines. The civilians, mostly children and elderly, are the most affected, of course. More than 48 have died as a result of malnutrition or lack of medical supplies.

The Yarmouk camp’s suffering is a major black eye for Assad. To have Palestinian refugees, so close to the Presidential palaces, starving to death, is a major liability and is already becoming the rallying cry for more involvement from Arab states. Yesterday, more than a half dozen international Palestinian groups called on Assad to lift his siege and the UN to act.

Russia, in particular, may be weary of this problem. One of Russia’s chief concerns is that militant Islamists, some from Chechnya and the North Caucasus, see Russia’s support for Assad as just another reason to conduct terrorism and insurgency. Few things rev Islamic terrorists up more than starving Palestinian refugees. If anything emerges from Montreux, and that is highly unlikely, it could be a local ceasefire in the Yarmouk camp.

Will it work? Two weeks ago the UN thought it had made a breakthrough. The regime had agreed to escort a UN aid convoy into the camp to deliver food and medical supplies. However, rather than approach the camp from the north, the regime insisted on moving the convoy around the camp to approach it from the south. The regime then had to clear roadblocks with bulldozers in order to travel this route, and those roadblocks had been put there to stop regime tanks from storming the camp. This was unlikely to be acceptable to the Syrian rebels who only saw the aid delivery as a temporary truce. Also, according to sources among Syrian rebels fighting in Damascus, the groups guarding the southern road were Islamists who were already not trusting of either the UN or the Assad regime. Predictably, that convoy was fired upon, and the aid delivery was stopped. The UN aid agency, and contacts in the Syrian opposition, both say that this was engineered by the Assad government, as the UN insists that the government insisted upon a “circuitous and dangerous route.”

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said Damascus had authorised a six-truck convoy to deliver food for 6,000 people, 10,000 doses of polio vaccine and medical supplies to the Yarmouk Palestinian district where 15 people have died of malnutrition and 18,000 are trapped by fighting.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement the Syrian authorities “required” that it use the southern entrance to Yarmouk.

That meant it had to drive 20 km (12 miles) “through an area of intense and frequent armed conflict, in which numerous armed opposition groups, including some of the most extreme jihadist groups, have a strong and active presence”.

While aid did eventually make it to the town, thanks to the intervention of the Palestinian Authority, this is yet another example, among many, that the regime uses brokered ceasefires and international agreements to break its promises and advance its own goals.

So while the Geneva II conference is ripping apart and is probably hanging by its last thread, there is a slim chance of a microscopic breakthrough. But if I were a betting man, odds are that even if one sets expectations that small, the Geneva conference will probably still amount to nothing but disappointment.