Geneva II Talks on Syria Still Matter

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Article Summary
Although the Syrian opposition has refused to deal with Assad, Geneva II still represents the best chance for a diplomatic start to end to the war.

The Geneva II conference has yet to convene — indeed, it may never convene — but the failure of the “outsiders” to organize coherently in anticipation of the conference has clarified a number of important if uncomfortable realities.

The Baath Party has wielded power for more than half a century in Syria for reasons more complex and legitimate than many are prepared to credit. It emerged as pre-eminent as a consequence of the strengths and weaknesses displayed by its local and regional competitors. The shortcomings of the opposition today, and not principally on the battlefield, suggest a similar, powerful rationale for its continuing claim to exercise power.

From the beginning of the revolt against Syria's ruling Baath regime two years ago, the international community outside the Arab world has always preferred the narrative it has imposed on the crisis — democratizing rebels acting against a tyrant in the most selfless spirit of the Arab Spring — to the far messier and less laudatory reality. It has built a policy based on these misapprehensions, awarding to Assad's opponents a greater degree of coherence and standing at the United Nations General Assembly, and in US and EU policy, than the Syrians are able to manage themselves, both within their own councils and with the Syrian public.

US views on Syria have long been infused with an air of high-minded unreality and wishful thinking: aspirational rather than policy- and operationally-oriented. The Obama administration established and endorsed the gold standard — Assad's departure — and engineered the international legitimacy of exiles without internalizing the commitment required to achieve its maximalist objectives. It describes the merry-go-round of opposition leaders as “presidents” and “prime ministers” to the point of parody. It is not clear who policymakers think they are fooling by investing Assad's opponents with this ersatz pedigree … other than perhaps themselves. You can call a tomato an apple all day long, but if it is really an apple you're inviting disappointment. It won't taste the way you expect it to; that in short is the West's experience with the opposition.

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The outside opposition appears unable to organize around a considered platform of ideas and policy positions on the issues of the day — a program that would reflect political maturity and a realistic assessment of the effort to oust the regime. The focus instead has been on a division of the spoils in its own organizations and those offered by outside sponsors. Like the family of Zorba the Greek, in the period meant to lead to Geneva II, the opposition is arguing over a division of the estate before the Assad regime is defeated. Even this effort has failed, raising fundamental questions about the opposition itself — the very opposite result intended by well-meaning if artless Western sponsors.

The political failure of the external opposition is ongoing. “The National Coalition will not take part in any international conference or any such efforts as long as the militias of Iran and Hezbollah continue their invasion of Syria," the opposition's acting chief, George Sabra, told reporters in Istanbul on May 30. 

Hezbollah and Iran are a politically convenient if transparent excuse for the opposition's debilitating weaknesses, which the Geneva process has only exposed and exacerbated. 

These shortcomings have already influenced the dynamics of Geneva II and the possibility of a political solution (or at least the pre-emption of a military solution) that it represents. Should it reverse the decision not to attend, the opposition will have difficulty making good on its previously expressed interest in exercising a veto over  which of Assad's men will attend Geneva II — it has only been successful in exercising an auto-veto of its own prospects.

While Russia and Damascus are presenting a united front, diplomatically as well as militarily, Washington has succeeded in alienating all Syrian parties, opposition and government alike, who appear to agree on at least one thing: US interest in a sovereign, united Syria is doubtful and its commitment to Assad's ouster is faltering. As a consequence Assad now occupies the enviable position of suggesting with whom among a divided opposition he is prepared to sit opposite and with whom he can “do business.”

The Syrian authorities want to "clear up the details and specify with whom to engage in dialogue," explained Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem yesterday, noting that "it was pointless establishing contact with those who have blood on their hands. Those who sow terror and violence cannot advocate for a peaceful settlement."

In another sign of confidence, Muallem noted that whether “President Assad [will] run for a third term or won't … will depend on conditions in 2014 and the will of the people.”

"If the people want him, he will present himself, and, if they don't, he won't. Mr. Assad is in constant touch with his people."

In this way, Damascus is signaling that a process embraced by Washington in anticipation of Assad's ouster may be turned on its head — as a vehicle for legitimizing via a popular mandate Assad's continuing rule.

The implosion of the opposition is not complete. Too much has been invested to leave its leaders, who long ago ceded the power to direct their own destiny, to their own devices. Nevertheless, the US has lost one of the key political instruments created to drive the Syrian government out. As of now it has no one to present as a Syrian negotiating partner opposed to the Syrian government in the planned Geneva II conference, or anywhere. 

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs.

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Found in: us, syrian, russian, laurent fabius, alawites

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.

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