Syria conference misses hard lessons from Lebanon

Without the remote possibility to kick off a political transition in Syria, or the latitude and support from major stakeholders to enforce a comprehensive truce, the current meeting in the beautiful Swiss town of Montreux has proven to be an exercise in political theater and diplomatic tourism.

After a day of statements and speeches from over 30 representatives, the ceremonial meeting has ended as more Syrian-Syrian direct talks moderated by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are expected tomorrow. Some of the Montreux speeches were bitter and very strong in their language, but they will have little to no influence on the fire raging 3,000 kilometers away in Syria. Here is why:

Internal and regional dynamics

Anyone who has been following the Syrian conflict for the last three years can tell you that the representatives attending the conference from both the regime and the opposition sides have minimal bearing on what is happening on the ground. The rebels doing the day-to-day fighting have dismissed the conference, and saw in it an “international ploy to buy time,” while the regime has defined its own goal and mission at Geneva II as fighting terrorism, instead of the official goal to start a political transition.

Anyone who has been following the Syrian conflict for the last three years can tell you that the representatives attending the conference from both the regime and the opposition sides have minimal bearing on what is happening on the ground

Joyce Karam


Those who are calling the shots inside the regime in the security apparatus are nowhere near Montreux, and the rebels have other priorities at the moment in taking on al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the North and reorganizing in the South and near Damascus.

Regionally, the absence of Iran from the meeting was an early obituary to “Geneva II” chances of achieving a serious political transition. Today, Iran stands as the most influential stakeholder inside the Assad regime, and has immense leverage on groups fighting on behalf of Assad such as Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias.

Serious solution

Any serious solution to the conflict will have to incorporate the Iranian government in its deliberations. The rest of the regional countries participating including Saudi, Turkey and Qatar, have not reached consensus on the best way forward, and who to support among the rebels. Qatar still enjoys more influence on extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, while Riyadh is trying to bolster the more moderate Islamic Front.

Internationally, there is no appetite for the West to get more involved in Syria. More humanitarian aid will come out of the Montreux meeting, and the U.S. could take a bigger role in organizing the opposition and resuming non-lethal aid to the rebels, but there will be no game changing measures from Washington.

In short, and to borrow Dr. Seuss’ term, those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind when it comes to the continuing conflict in Syria.

Hard lessons from Lebanon

Syria is not the first Middle Eastern country to have an inconsequential conference in Switzerland. In October of 1983, Lebanese officials and warlords went to Geneva for talks to end the infighting and try to reconfigure a new national pact to govern the country. They failed for many of the reasons facing Syria today, such as the lack of internal and regional consensus, and the unwillingness of the major Christian parties then to compromise. The Lebanese civil war continued after the 1983 Geneva meeting for six long years.

Despite the power-structure differences between Beirut and Damascus such as the centrality of the Syrian government, the Lebanonization of Syria is becoming more seen in the nature of the fighting and the deep discontent with the current system. The internal dynamics of the conflict and its many combatants, added to the demographic challenges as well as the regional proxy struggle taking place inside Syria, all converge with Lebanon’s 15-year-old war.

When the Lebanese went to Geneva in 1983, their most determined warlords spoke of “hope and peace.” Pierre Gemayel of the Phalangist party said “I hope we will succeed in saving our country” as Nabih Berri of Shiite Amal party, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stood next to him.

But even as talks were ongoing in Geneva, arms shipments were coming into Beirut, militias springing from Chouf to the North. Upon their return, those same leaders fought a war of attrition for six more years before internal and regional components forced it to an end in a landmark regional conference in the Saudi city of Taif in 1989.

Changed demographics

Taif inaugurated a more balanced power-sharing agreement for Lebanon that takes into consideration the changed demographics inside the country. But for Taif to have happened, those fighting inside Lebanon, in particularly the Christian parties, had to recognize that they are at the end of the rope and there is no winning. Regional countries also were aligned in rallying behind the new power-sharing agreement.

It is unclear when the Syrian factions will get to that point and reach their own version of Taif. All indications including the defiance on part of the regime, and the state of the opposition, promise a long war for Syria. Meanwhile, Montreux’s “Geneva II” will be remembered as another benchmark on the side of the conflict that has produced strong words from opposing sides, and a good photo-op for the representatives.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
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