Syrian Peace Conference Now Certain to Fail

January 20, 2014
Residents of opposition-occupied Kafranbel, Syria, express their sentiments towards the Geneva II talks.

The Geneva II conference on Syria starts this week. The Syrian National Coalition, the internationally recognized opposition group, has decided that it will attend. The SNC also indicated last week that hopes for success were slim. But those hopes have now fallen to zero. This is not my wish, nor my opinion, but the only way to assess the facts, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not naive or hopeful: they’re simply misinformed.

What is the Geneva I plan?

The 1st Geneva Communique, launched on June 30, 2012, could be considered synonymous with the “Kofi Annan plan.” The plan calls for a ceasefire from both sides, the withdrawal of troops from Syria’s cities, and the establishment of a transitional process. From the start, the plan was weak because it relied on a few improbable events. In the past, every ceasefire attempt between the opposition and the regime has been broken by the Assad regime, and while, each time, Assad said he had withdrawn his forces, he subsequently declared that he had recommitted new forces to “fighting terrorism.” The problem — Assad considers all of his opponents “terrorists,” and therefore “ceasefire” has been an excuse to launch new offensives. Because of this history, even if the SNC were to negotiate a ceasefire, many armed groups may not trust Assad enough to stop their own fighting. If one armed group, not under SNC control, broke the ceasefire, Assad would almost certainly retaliate as if “the opposition” were a unified block of “terrorists.”

In my brief history of this phenomenon I point out that while this was ongoing, the Russian Foreign Ministry has tried to lead efforts in the international community to establish an international agreement to end the crisis. In other words, Russia has consistently ignored Assad’s intransigence and echoed Assad’s message instead of using its influence to convince Assad to abide to the Geneva accord. Russia’s “spin” on these efforts is so deep that, despite the fact that Russia does not agree with several main clauses of the Geneva accord, including the establishment of a transitional government that does not include the current regime, Sergei Lavrov has referred to this agreement at the “Russian-American initiative,” and no such initiative exists.

What is the Geneva II plan?

See previous paragraphs. Despite considerable conjecture about what deal will emerge from the Geneva II conference, the fact is that the conference has always had one agenda: to come up with a plan to implement the Geneva I plan. US Secretary of State John Kerry has echoed statements from the Syrian opposition that one of the main tenets of the plan is the establishment of a transitional government that does not include Assad.  Russia and the Assad regime reject this notion, despite the fact that it is central to the Geneva I plan, the execution of which is now being debated. Even if the US and the SNC capitulate, the main fighting groups of the SNC would not allow a ceasefire to advance if it did not mean that the Assad regime was removed.

Assad Will Not Leave

In advance of the Geneva II conference, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been making statements to the media and to foreign diplomats indicating that he will not leave power, will almost certainly run for re-election, will not allow the opposition to pick his prime minister, and will continue his fight against terrorism. This weekend, Assad indicated that giving in on these issues is “surrender.”

“If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start,” Mr Assad told Russian MPs in Damascus, according to Interfax news agency.

And today Assad told the AFP that “the chances for my candidacy [for re-election] are significant.” He said that he was defending his country, and his “only choice is to win.”

“It is clear to everyone that some of the groups which might attend the conference didn’t exist until very recently,” he said.

“They were created during the crisis by foreign intelligence agencies whether in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States or other countries.”

“When we sit down with these groups, we are in fact negotiating with those countries,” Assad said…

“This battle is not…, as Western propaganda portrays, a popular uprising against a regime suppressing its people and a revolution calling for democracy and freedom,” he said.

“A popular revolution doesn’t last for three years only to fail. Moreover, a national revolution cannot have a foreign agenda.”

Assad will not give in. And if the SNC and those negotiating on behalf of the opposition do give in and strike a deal where Assad stays to fight “terrorists,” then those fighting Assad will almost certainly turn their backs on the entire process and continue to fight Assad. So, sorry to burst Ban Ki Moon’s bubble, but what’s happening in Geneva is almost certainly a giant waste of everyone’s time. Actually, it’s worse than that, because the international community has placed all of its faith in the Geneva II conference and has no plan B.

And then there is Iran

As if all of that wasn’t enough, there is also the issue of whether Iran will be part of the Geneva talks. The United Nations, apparently against the wishes of the United States, invited Iran to be part of the talks. Iran has openly rejected the Geneva I agreement as a precondition to Geneva II, the US has asked the UN to rescind its invitation to Iran, and the Syrian National Coalition has stated that it will not meet with Iran, and will pull out of the conference unless Iran’s invitation is rescinded or Iran meets the following conditions:

  • Withdraw all troops and militias from Syria.
  • Commitment by all the terms to the Geneva 1 communique
  • A positive commitment to Geneva 2.

So Geneva II is dead if Iran does not capitulate. And even if Geneva II is not dead, given the intransigence of the parties involved, the chances of a successful implementation of its goals have now dropped to zero.