Geneva II failed before it began

Of all the developments that have confounded and divided analysts on the Syrian conflict, today’s conference in Geneva is not one of them. Its failure is certain, and all sides know it, though they are not necessarily willing to say so publicly. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, whose country is co-organizing the talks, is giving them a “less than fifty-fifty” chance of success, and that is still wildly optimistic.

Until the last minute, it was not certain that the conference would take place - not that it would matter either way. In reality, the talks are not about Syria. They are about foreign parties on both sides of the conflict being seen to be doing something - however symbolic or futile - to counter international accusations of inaction or meddling. It is, in effect, a hollow PR stunt.

The result of the first Geneva conference, in 2012, was a communiqué calling for a transitional government in Syria. That proposal has never worked because of widely divergent views over who should be part of such a government.

In particular, Syrian opposition groups and their backers say President Bashar al-Assad should have no role (a position reiterated on Sunday), while his regime says his position is not up for negotiation. We are no closer to bridging that gap, nor will we be after Geneva II.

Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations, summed it up aptly: “On the eve of meetings, you can be sure the two sides will reaffirm their positions: One, Assad is the only legitimate president for the next 50 years, and the other one, Assad has to retire somewhere and soon.”

Regime defiance

The Syrian president has struck a defiant tone all the way up to today’s conference. Just two days prior, he described the possibility of naming opposition members abroad to a future government as “totally unrealistic” and a “good joke.”

Furthermore, although the purpose of the talks is supposedly to reach agreement on a transitional government, Assad said the focus should be on “the fight against terrorism” – not his regime’s terrorism of course.

Last but not least, his statement that there is a “significant” chance that he will stand in presidential elections expected this June – the kind of elections that Syria and other Arab dictatorships are renowned for – hardly paints a picture of someone willing to accept the idea of a transitional government. And why would he? Assad’s position now is much more secure than it was during the first Geneva conference.

It is highly unlikely that Assad has any intention of conducting meaningful negotiations in Geneva.

Sharif Nashashibi

The direct military involvement of his foreign allies has earned him important battlefield gains, while the political opposition is still hopelessly divided. Meanwhile, there is unprecedented infighting among armed rebels, with the Free Syrian Army and certain Islamist groups taking on those linked to al-Qaeda.

The rise of extremist Islamist militancy within Syria’s revolution has undercut Western, and even Arab and Syrian confidence and support for the opposition - not that the foreign military and financial backing it received was ever remotely comparable to that enjoyed by Assad. Britain and the United states suspended aid to rebels last month after warehouses of equipment meant for the FSA were captured by Islamist fighters.

Furthermore, Syria’s deputy foreign minister claimed recently that Western intelligence services opposed to Assad have visited Damascus to discuss security cooperation with the regime. This is not particularly surprising in light of its agreement last year to give up its chemical weapons.

This means that the relationship between Assad and the West - particularly the United States - has returned to one of behind-the-scenes cooperation rather than outright hostility. This belies the often confrontational tone of official statements on both sides, which increasingly seem designed to save face with their own support bases rather than reflect reality.

Given all these developments, it is highly unlikely that Assad has any intention of conducting meaningful negotiations in Geneva. The conference probably serves as a global propaganda platform for him, and a chance to show the world that he is not the intransigent party in this conflict.

Opposition divisions and disadvantages

The opposition Syrian National Coalition is also keen to show that it is not being obstinate, not least because of intense pressure from Western and Arab allies to attend the talks. The United States and Britain reportedly threatened to withdraw their support if it did not do so.


The SNC announced its participation at the last minute, and until then had been kicking and screaming about the conference. However, in the end it agreed to take part without any of its preconditions being met.

This suggests that the Coalition had little choice but to accept if it wanted to retain its already shaky legitimacy with its foreign backers, and salvage its shrinking relevance on the ground. However, its presence in Geneva is unlikely to make a difference in that regard, and may well have cemented its irrelevance - perhaps even its demise.

On Sunday, the Islamic Front - reportedly the biggest rebel alliance - said it rejected the talks, despite efforts by Qatar and Turkey to bring it on board. Dozens of other anti-Assad Islamist groups had already refused to attend.

A statement by 19 of them warned that participants would be committing “treason,” and “would have to answer for itbefore our courts” – a clear reference to the SNC and other Syrian opposition groups. Dozens of other rebel forces refusing to attend said the Coalition had “failed,” adding: “All groups formed abroad without having returned to the country do not represent us.”

Recognition of the SNC by numerous states as the “sole” or “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” may have worked against it by creating resentment among sidelined, but nonetheless important, opposition groups who see no reason why they should abide by the Coalition’s decisions.

Many had already suspended their membership in the SNC over the issue of going to Geneva. Its largest component - the Syrian National Council - on Monday carried out its threat to quit the Coalition if it decided to negotiate without first securing Assad’s departure.

This may signal the death knell of the Coalition. Basically, it was damned if it took part in Geneva, and damned if it did not. The regime, on the other hand, loses nothing by being there, and can depart with the upper hand without conceding anything. Ironically, the Coalition’s foreign backers may have inadvertently pushed it into a corner from which it cannot escape unscathed, if at all.

“The Geneva peace conference is not the end, but rather the beginning, the launch of a process that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

He could not be more wrong. Geneva II maintains the same flawed formula as its predecessor. Given its certain failure as a result, Kerry is delusional to contemplate a Geneva III, or to think that there will even be a Coalition to invite next time.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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