I reckon there is no political observer who expected much from the Geneva 3 talks on Syria. In fact, a senior western diplomat was frank when he expressed his doubts about chances of success as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) took its difficult decision to send its delegation for talks with the U.N.’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, along with calls to implement international pledges regarding humanitarian issues. The HNC, which was formed by the Riyadh conference and brought together the broadest representation of Syrian opposition groups, was under immense pressure to attend Geneva 3.
This pressure was international as de Mistura threatened the HNC with a fait accompli conference, Washington threatened it would cut off aid if HNC did not attend. Russia’s case was even more curious as it is now at war with the Syrian people. The astonishing thing is that while Russia acts as a full political and military “partner” of the Assad regime, it still insists on being an authority eligible of picking and choosing delegates of Assad’s “opposition”.
If we review the overall efforts made to stop the war in Syria since the summer of 2011, when Bashar Assad decided to crush the popular uprising by force, we find two movements moving simultaneously in opposite directions:
- There has been a gradual decline in the cohesion of the group of countries that stood by the Syrian uprising as the U.S. and Iran were finalizing the JCPOA (i.e. the Iran nuclear deal).
- As it became clear to Assad regime that it would not survive if left to its own devices, all the hidden links kept in reserve for a rainy day, its implicit alliances and subsequently its strategic role in the Middle East were all uncovered.
The countries that initially sided with the Syrian uprising joined hands under what was called the “Friends of Syria” and met in February 2012 in the absence of Russia, China and Iran. The aid provided by the Western powers claiming the “friendship” of the Syrian people, however, fell short of what the Syrian opposition was asking for, namely, safe havens, no-fly zones, and advanced and effective defensive weapons capable of neutralizing and deterring Assad’s air force.
In June 2012 a meeting was held in Geneva, this time attended by Russia and China. This meeting set in motion a “transitional” process leading to a “Syria without Assad”. However, Russia supported by China adopted the regime’s demands that the priority should be “fighting terrorism”, meaning the opposition. At this point there was a clear difference of interpretation of the Geneva (now known as Geneva 1) principles.
Letting down the Syrian uprising by 2015 led to the proliferation of extremist groups against a marked erosion of frustrated and desperate moderatesEyad Abu Shakra
The Western “Friends of Syria” continued to refuse providing any qualitative military aid to the opposition, especially, the “Free Syrian Army” as ISIS was gaining ground in many parts of Syria, virtually, unopposed and unhindered by the regime’s army. Indeed, the regime intentionally exploited the advances of ISIS against the FSA, making common cause with it as spelt out candidly by a Syrian intelligence Lebanese functionary.
By 2013 the U.S.–Iran rapprochement was rapidly becoming a reality, more so after reports of secret negotiations in Muscat surfaced, and Hassan Rowhani won Iran’s presidential elections in June 2013. Almost immediately thereafter, Washington described his win as a victory for “moderation” and “rationalism” that deserved a positive response.
Within few months, as soon as Assad realized that White House’s threatening “red lines” were non-existent, it used chemical weapons in Greater Damascus while doing nothing about ISIS taking over the city of Raqqah, which became Syria’s first provincial capital to fall to the extremist terrorist organization. Washington, in turn, did nothing about the chemical attack and expressed its satisfaction over Assad handing over his chemical “arsenal”.
In January 2014 Geneva 2 ended without any positive results. Moscow stood firm while Washington, not only retreated from its initial stance, but moved even closer to the Russian interpretation of what was going on in Syria. Then, in early March 2014, President Barack Obama sent a clear message “to whom it may concern” in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. He insinuated that he regarded Iran as a trustworthy ally in the Middle East along with Israel.
Subsequently, Washington rhetoric against Assad was getting fainter, concentrating its argument on the fact that “he has lost his legitimacy” as Raqqah became the declared “capital” of ISIS in the heart of Syria. Both in and outside Syria, letting down the Syrian uprising by 2015 led to the proliferation of extremist groups against a marked erosion of frustrated and desperate moderates, some of whom began bit by bit to leave the political and military scene.
Yet, despite this, and the active backing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its militias, the regime failed to gain the upper hand on the ground. Given the above stalemate, against the background of massacres, human suffering, threats to a number of the regime’s heartlands, and the West’s move to consider fighting ISIS as the priority in Syria, Russia joined the war in October 2015 under the pretext of attacking ISIS.
One month after the Russian intervention, which concentrated its bombardment on FSA positions and “moderate” opposition groups, representatives of 17 countries, including Iran, met in Vienna. Representatives of the regime and the opposition were, however, not present.
The meeting ended with agreement on a ceasefire and a “framework for political transition”, but not the future of Assad. Consequently, last December, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed to a “road map” that begins with negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition to broker a ceasefire, forming a “transitional government” within six months and conducting elections within 18 months, again saying nothing about Assad’s role.
But in the light of developing agreements between Washington and Moscow, and the changes on the ground brought about by the Russian military campaign, some recent reports have suggested that Washington and Tehran have agreed that Assad remains in office until 2022!
What should we expect now? It is obvious that the Syrian opposition has no option but to continue its steadfastness, regardless of how huge the disappointment is. Steadfastness without illusions! The Syrian opposition is aware that its “adversary” is also the “referee”, and thus must not give it new excuses to continue betraying it.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 05, 2016.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.