Any review of civil wars in the modern era shows that most of them are settled militarily. Civil wars fought between two combatants with limited or no foreign intervention tend to end in a few years (the American civil war, for example). Even the Spanish civil war, in which many foreign countries and parties were deeply involved, was settled in three years because it remained a conflict between two camps. Those civil wars involving more than one faction, and drawing a number of foreign sponsors of the local combatants, tend to drag on for years, even decades, (Angola, Afghanistan and Lebanon, for example). Syria’s civil war belongs to the second category, and is likely to continue for some time. Not necessarily at the current tempo, however, particularly with the emergence of “Cantons” controlled by the various warring parties. The Assad regime controls parts of Damascus, Aleppo and other cities, as well as a sliver of land connecting the capital to the predominantly Alawite Syrian coast, the community from which the Assad clan hails. In parts of northern Syria, hard line Islamists factions hold sway, and in parts of southern Syria factions belonging the ‘Free Syrian Army’ made headway. And in northeastern Syria the Kurdish groups are in control of their ancestral lands.
It is true that the prospects of convening the Geneva II conference are low, and the chances of success are almost nil, nonetheless the Syrian opposition’s hostility to convening a “peace” conference without a priori decision guaranteeing Bashar al-Assad’s departure is ill conceived tactically, just as boycotting Geneva II if it takes place or rejecting the Principle of negotiations with representatives of the current regime is a strategic blunder. The continuation of fighting will likely lead to the breakup of Syria, turning what is today a “soft partition” of the country into a de facto or final hard partition. Moreover, such an outcome will embolden, strengthen and legitimize the hard line Salafist groups, many of whose members are not even Syrians. This possibility will play into the hands of those who claim that the struggle has become one between a “secular” regime fighting the atavistic dark forces of Jihadists threatening not only Syria but the region and the West. Geneva II could become a new opportunity for a fragmented and weak opposition lacking a stellar reputation inside Syria, given the constant bickering among its various components, and their inability to frame an over-arching vision of a post-Assad Syria to resurrect itself as a viable opposition capable of negotiating political outcomes and delivering on its promises and commitments.
What could be
Geneva II could provide the opposition a chance to prove to the world, and the Syrian themselves, that they truly represent them and they are fighting on their behalf, that they will do their utmost not only to overthrow a despotic regime and build a representative and democratic alternative, but also to do whatever it takes to alleviate their suffering during this tragic moment in their lives. Boycotting Geneva II will serve the deceptive narrative of the Assad regime that it is fighting only extremists and Jihadists with links to al-Qaeda. Such a posture could lead the Obama administration, which has not been a very reliable supporter, to entertain compromises that would not necessarily serve the long term aspirations of the Syrian people. Washington’s recent contradictory positions on Syria, since the major chemical attack last August, and the media leaks showing that the Central Intelligence Agency’s limited plans to arm Syrian rebels are not designed to help them achieve victory - like Assad’s friends - but rather to create a stalemate and exhaust both sides to force them to sue for peace, should be a wakeup call for the opposition to reconsider some of their political goals and assumptions. The opposition should go to Geneva II precisely to ask the United States and others who call themselves “Friends of the Syrian People” to deliver on their pledges and commitments to actively work on establishing a “transitional governing body” that “would exercise full executive powers” as stipulated in the communiqué of Geneva I . The opposition should tell its international friends that if Geneva II is to fail, they should commit themselves to helping the rebellion with the type of arms that could tip the balance on the battle field.
Geneva II could provide the opposition a chance to prove to the world, and the Syrian themselves, that they truly represent them and they are fighting on their behalfHisham Melhem
The opposition, mainly the National Coalition and the Syrian Free Army should agree on a definition of what “full executive powers” means; that should include authority over the armed forces, security and intelligence services, communication and the central bank. The communiqué of the “London 11” (the U.S., Arab and European nations), which convened a few days ago, moved in the direction of the opposition when it stated that when the transitional government is formed, Bashar Assad and his close lieutenants “with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.” Even if the conference is convened and an acceptable political settlement was not within reach, the opposition would have been in a position to advocate for the implementation of those items in Geneva I that would have an impact on the lives of Syrians, such as the rapid release of the detained and other demands that the international community support, such as unencumbered access to the besieged areas to provide humanitarian relief, and an end to the siege of Ghoutah, other suburbs of Damascus, Homs and other areas. They could also push for financial and tangible material aid to administer the liberated areas and provide basic services. The “London 11” warned against “delaying tactics” and is pushing for the establishment of the transitional government “within the coming months.” Therefore, it is imperative that the Syrian opposition should not be seen as a serious obstacle to Geneva II, particularly when Assad himself is acting and implying that he is not willing to participate in it. By going to Geneva II the opposition will not be forsaking any option, and should be able to talk and fight at the same time. The war in Syria is approaching the tipping point where the answer to the question that Fred Hof, one of America’s best commentators on Syria, posed recently (“Syria: Is it too late to do anything?”) will be in the affirmative.
The opposition’s skepticism about Geneva II is well founded, but for the opposition not to be in any meeting that will address the future of the Syrian people is a dereliction of duty. There should be no illusions about Geneva II, but if it could provide the opposition the opportunity to articulate in front of the world an inclusive and democratic vision of Syria, and a chance to achieve even limited tactical successes to alleviate the agony of millions of Syrians, then it would have been worth it. There is no alternative to rational, cold, political calculus. Go to Geneva.
This article was first published in al-Nahar on Oct. 26, 2013.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem