Sense and nonsense at Geneva talks

That nothing has been achieved at the Geneva II conference on Syria is not surprising

Hisham Melhem
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“We’ve just had eight days of negotiations in Geneva… I’m sorry to report there was no progress. It was very good that this has taken place, it was the first time that the government and some people who were opposing it met publicly and under the auspices of the United Nations, but we haven’t achieved anything.” - Lakhdar Brahimi

They came to Geneva, and like two ships sailing at night, they passed each other, leaving behind waves of bitterness and rancor. The delegation from Damascus looked, acted and talked as if Syria was frozen in time since the 1950’s. Dour faces, shrill voices, grandstanding and fake indignation were on display behind closed doors and in their surreal exchanges with an incredulous international media. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Bouthaina Shaaban and Co. expected a fractured maybe incoherent, or as they said an “immature” opposition delegation, but they were surprised, like most people, when they saw instead the coalition delegation led by Ahmed Jarba, presenting a coherent inclusive political alternative for a future Syria free of the depredations of the Assad regime.



But beyond the theatrics and invectives of the duo of Rambling Moallem and Shrieking Bouthaina and a sober Jarba, the tragic reality remains that nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria during the Geneva II “negotiations” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based pro-opposition group.

As we stated here last week, for the U.S. (and Russia) “the most important thing is that finally there is a process launched” according to a senior U.S. official speaking with journalists hours after the first round of the “process” ended. But the seasoned diplomat, after saying that not much has been accomplished, and that it is not reasonable to expect quick results added “I would not want to leave anyone the sense that we are optimistic that there will be a breakthrough in the next round or the round thereafter. This will be a long process that requires a lot of persistence on the part of the parties and the international community.”

It is true that no one anticipated political progress at Geneva II, but the “process” failed the Syrian people in another more palpable way; when the regime refused to allow humanitarian relief convoys access to besieged areas in Ghouta, East of Damascus, the old city of Homs, parts of Aleppo and others areas where emaciated people particularly children and elderly have perished and many suffer from severe malnutrition.

Syria and Russia on the ascendancy?

That nothing has been achieved at the Geneva II conference on Syria is not surprising. It is not that the gap between the negotiators is too deep; that is a given, but that the objectives are simply irreconcilable. To put it bluntly, when the opposition insists, correctly, that the purpose of the talks is to establish a “transitional governing body” for a post-Assad Syria, it is asking Assad and his representatives to negotiate themselves out of power.

That nothing has been achieved at the Geneva II conference on Syria is not surprising. It is not that the gap between the negotiators is too deep; that is a given, but that the objectives are simply irreconcilable

Hisham Melhem

When the GenevaI communique was written more than a year ago many people thought that Assad’s demise was at hand. A year later, Assad is doing relatively well on the battlefield, (a euphemism for raising whole neighborhoods, terrorizing cities and towns by throwing barrels filled with explosives from helicopters on schools, hospitals and other non-military targets, while subjecting whole residential areas to Medieval like starvation sieges) and he is more determined to cling to power.

In fact, Ibrahimi’s comment that “The government thinks they can win” is shared by America’s Intelligence community (which also says that “many insurgents” believes so too). The annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, presented to Congress few days ago states that “President Assad remain unwilling to negotiate himself out of power. Assad almost certainly intends to remain the ruler of Syria and plans to win a new seven-year term in presidential election that might occur as early as mid-2014.”

The report’s assessment of the decision by the Obama Administration to call off military strikes against Syria last summer in return for the dismantlement of Syria’s arsenal of Chemical Weapons (CW) as a result of a Russian initiative is nothing short of embarrassing to the White House. The report states that “Moscow has hailed its CW initiative in Syria as a major foreign policy accomplishment… It positions Russia to play a major role in any future settlement of the Syrian conflict and adds legitimacy to the Syrian regime.” Obviously, the State Department was not thrilled by this assessment and said so.

Dracula decrying sucking blood

The ranting of Walid Muallem and his sidekicks against the opposition and the international sinister forces trying to undermine Syria’s alleged role as a "secular" defender of Christians and other minorities and a bulwark against the machinations of Israel, the U.S. and the terror of fanatic Islamists, their old rustic, crass propaganda and buffoonery may have been outlandish, entertaining and morally repugnant, nonetheless, this maddening rhetoric was also cunningly devised. From the beginning of the peaceful uprising almost three years ago the Assad regime first invented then found its enemy of choice: Islamist terror.

They may not have been any takers early on, but there are now. And here we should say, as the non-Islamist opposition should say loud and clear, that many of the Islamist and Jihadist organizations with their dark visions and darker practices have provided Assad with an effective cover to continue his own sectarianism, while flagrantly collaborating with some of them, particularly the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to buy petroleum by-products according to credible reports in the New York Times and Britain's Guardian. American and other Western officials are aware of this.

The senior official who spoke with us noted that “It is a known fact that the regime has declined to hit the headquarters of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State group (ISIS) in Raqqah, but they have hit plenty of other targets belonging to other armed groups in Raqqah.”

Recently the regime leaked stories claiming that some “western” countries were seeking collaboration with Damascus against Islamist terrorist organizations, and last week The Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank hosted a delegation of “Syrian Christian Leaders” who while refusing to blame Assad for Syria’s descent to hell, or mention the regime’s sectarian cleansing, spoke fervently against the threat of the Jihadists and their Arab sponsors and urged the U.S. to check that threat.

Rise of insurgency

With the rise of the Islamist insurgents and their wanton violence against Christians, including killing civilians, burning and destroying churches and kidnapping nuns, (and killing Muslim civilians who are deemed insufficiently pious) and their stated objective of establishing an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia’ law, we have seen a number of former officials and pundits calling on the Obama Administration to re-assess its anti-Assad posture.

Frank G. Wisner and Leslie H. Gelb two former officials were the latest such voices. In a recent article they called on Obama to “Face the Assad Reality In Syria” which begins with realizing that the current policy will fail, and instead Washington should pressure the moderate rebels (and Assad with Russian help) and inter into a temporary alliance against the growing common enemy; the Jihadists. In December, Ryan Crocker, one of America’s best diplomats and ambassador extraordinaire with stints in Beirut, Damascus and Iraq, stirred a controversy when he declared, much to the chagrin of many of his admirers, that “Assad Is the Least Worst Option”, because the alternative is a country at “the heart of the Arab world in the hands of al-Qaeda.”

All of these views re-enforce President Obama’s well documented determination not to get involved directly in Syria. At Geneva, watching Rambling Moallem, and shrieking Bouthaina fake indignation at an ungrateful world that does not appreciate Syria’s valiant struggle against terrorism and its protection of the Christians, was akin to Dracula decrying sucking blood.

Radioactive Syria

The opposition, notwithstanding the professionalism and poise of the coalition delegation in Geneva, is too fragmented on the ground, and is marred by the rise of an ugly strain of Islamism that is unabashed in its primitiveness. Moreover, the “sponsors” of the warring parties don’t share a common vision of the future of Syria and are not fully engaged or committed to push seriously for an end to the war, now that they have achieved what they consider a tactical victory by merely getting the two sides into the same room.

As long as Russia, and more importantly Iran continue their diplomatic and military support for the Assad regime, there is no reason for Assad to change his calculus. And as long as U.S. support for the opposition remains rhetorical and materially and militarily modest and not designed to change the military balance on the ground, Secretary John Kerry will not succeed in achieving his earlier objective (one that he does not repeat these days) of “changing Assad’s calculus”.

Ever since his, by now infamous “red line” to Assad concerning the use of CW, President Obama rarely volunteers comments about Syria and when he is asked about the war it is clear that he wishes the horror away, and acts as if Syria is radioactive, not to be tackled by him, since he has subcontracted his administration’s minimalist role to his indefatigable, peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry.

In his State of the Union Address President Obama made two passing references to Syria that did not reflect the moral outrage one would expect Syria’s abomination should elicit from a thoughtful observer of history like Obama. “In Syria, we will support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks”. When all or most of the opposition was like that, they received ringing rhetorical support and shipments of food, medical supplies and communication gear. The Administration later on announced that it will provide some light arms and training, but then allowed bureaucratic complications to render the decision meaningless.

When the Islamists began to assert themselves, they provided a good excuse for the Administration not arm the (moderate) rebels for fear the weapons will end up in the wrong hands.

‘Submission or starvation’

President Obama took credit for Syria’s agreeing to dismantle its CW arsenal saying that American diplomacy “backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” For months the Administration touted this CW victory, as if all its Syria policy revolved around it (which is mostly true) only to admit in the last few days that Syria is dragging its feet on delivering its arsenal to the port of Lattakia so that it can be dismantled on a specially fitted US ship. According to press reports, less than 5 percent of Syria’s CW was eliminated.

The dark side of this agreement (whish spared Syria’s weapon systems from destruction) is that it allowed Assad to unleash with ferocity his forces armed with conventional weapons and even unsophisticated but deadly ordinance such as the infamous barrels filled with explosives which are wreaking unspeakable physical and human destruction and terror, a tactic supplemented by a brutal policy of “submission or starvation” in Arabic الركوع او الجوع .

One would expect the U.S. and Russia to push the parties, particularly the Syrian regime to return to Geneva to continue the “process” in a second round. Yes, the Geneva’s Syria process maybe flawed, but the “sponsors” now have an investment in maintaining it since it will allow them to claim progress in posh hotels and splendid rooms on that idyllic shore of Lake Geneva, while the killing machines in Syria continue to churn out fresh bodies.

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

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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