It is often said when referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. Let us hope that this is not the case with Syria, where, according to the United Nations, more than 70,000 people have been killed, more than 1.5 million have become registered refugees, and 8.3 million are in need of assistance.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to labor to convene an international conference based on the Action Group for Syria Final Communiqué (or Geneva Communiqué) of June 30, 2012, but have not yet sealed a deal.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces met May 24–27 in Istanbul but adjourned without reaching a decision on whether to attend the Geneva II conference. The Coalition, as the umbrella organization is known, remains deeply divided. The Qatar-backed faction and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood carry the most sway. Also failing in Istanbul was an attempt to expand the opposition leadership to include a slate of more secular figures, led by Michel Kilo, a longtime advocate of democratic reform who had been imprisoned by the Syrian government (most recently from 2006 to 2009). Qatar’s allies and the Brotherhood have sought to block more independent leadership, such as Kilo and outgoing Coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, who are also more receptive to a negotiated political solution to the crisis.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad at a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on May 26, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, said, “The Syrian government believes in all good faith that the international conference constitutes a favorable opportunity for a political solution to the crisis in Syria.” A few days earlier, on May 24, Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview, “Iran welcomes the convening of Geneva II.”
The glitch for the opposition is the role of President Bashar al-Assad and the parsing of the Geneva Communiqué by regional powers and members of the opposition who might prefer to carry on the battle against the Assad regime rather than negotiate a cease-fire. As explained by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in an article by Cengiz Candar, some of the Syrian opposition groups are unlikely to agree to any role for the Syrian president in a transitional government, picking up on the reference to “mutual consent” in the Geneva Communiqué: “The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
On May 22, the Joint Statement of the Participating Countries in the Amman Ministerial Meeting on Syria, unrelated to the Geneva Communiqué, provided that “as stated in the Abu Dhabi joint statement of the May 13th 2013, that Assad, his regime, and his close associates with blood on their hands cannot play any role in the future of Syria.”
So here is where things stand.
The Syrian government — which went on the military offensive in and around Qusair, as reported and analyzed by Jean Aziz and others in the Lebanon Pulse — says that it is ready to attend the Geneva II conference. The Assad regime, however, is unlikely to send delegates to Switzerland to negotiate the regime's exit, as it has not, in its scorekeeping, been defeated. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition remains undecided about its participation.
There will be no transition absent a cease-fire, and that must be negotiated with the Assad regime. Iran — which holds the key to Syria implementing a cease-fire and to any chance of scripting a transition that might allow a choreographed exit for Assad, absent further bloodbaths — welcomes the initiative, but has not yet been invited to Geneva II. In remarks in Paris on May 27, Lavrov said that he and Kerry had discussed an “expanded” invitation list to “involve all key outside players who have influence on the situation on the ground,” which was read to mean Iran. Kerry, for his part, said talk concerning participants is an “ongoing conversation.”
On May 25, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared, “This battle is ours,” referring to his organization’s involvement in confrontations with Salafist groups in Syria. As reported by Ali Hashem for Al-Monitor. Nasrallah also called for a “political dialogue” on Syria. Less than 24 hours later, two rockets hit Hezbollah neighborhoods in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
No signs are imminent that the Syrian opposition has the military capability to tip the balance in its favor, especially with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria’s corner, absent a scale of intervention not yet being considered by the United States and its NATO allies and despite the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s passage of the Syria Transition Support Act on May 21, as Pinar Tremblay reported this week, or as a result of arms exports that may be forthcoming as a result of the lapse of the EU arms embargo.
In sum, and to be as clear as possible on the consequences of the available options, there is, for the foreseeable future, likely to be more war in Syria and the region, more killing and more refugees if the priority is “regime change,” rather than a cease-fire, and if the plan is to stall or complicate the convening of Geneva II by placing conditions on dialogue in anticipation of US and EU aid and training to rebel forces and if the decision is made to exclude Iran from negotiations (whether at the conference or through back channel diplomacy).
If the priority, however, is to stop the war and killing in Syria, end the flow of refugees, allow immediate humanitarian assistance, prevent the further destruction and partition of Syria, stanch the rise of terrorist groups, begin an investigation into chemical weapons use and halt the further spread of the war to Lebanon and Iraq, the best, most urgent item is to convene Geneva II — without onerous conditions and including all relevant parties, including Iran — to negotiate a cease-fire as soon as possible, as called for in the Geneva Communiqué, and to begin discussions toward a transition among the Syrian parties themselves.
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