Long Road Ahead for Geneva 2

The US, France and Britain are working to form opposition delegations in anticipation of what has been dubbed the Geneva 2 conference.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters stand around a fire while they guard a neighborhood in Deir al-Zour, April 19, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi.

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syrian, russian diplomacy in syrian crisis, russian, peace, ncc, geneva

May 17, 2013

The three knights in charge of the Syrian affair held a closed private meeting. France’s Eric Chevallier, America’s Robert Ford, and Britain’s John Wilkes met in Washington to sift through the results of talks pertaining to Geneva 2.

The three diplomats are the knights of the Syrian crisis, for they alone assemble and dismantle the Syrian opposition, they alone set the dates of the latter’s conferences, its work agendas and programs from Tunis to Istanbul, Paris to Doha. Syrian dissidents are keenly aware of the authority that the three ambassadors have, they who carry messages from the capital cities of friends of Syria countries to the hills of Idlib’s countryside and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

The private meeting, as it was described by a Syrian National Coalition member of the Syrian opposition, served to compensate for the lack of a decision making mechanism in the opposition abroad, and hasten the pace of preparations for upcoming and urgent matters, such as the adoption of a clear stance toward the Geneva Conference, the appointment of members to the negotiating team, and agreeing on the topics that would be discussed during meetings with the regime’s delegation, in order to reach consensus about them once the National Coalition holds its conference in Istanbul next week.

The coalition was inclined to absolutely reject the notion of any form of negotiations with the regime prior to the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power, when Ford’s broken Arabic convinced opposition leaders in Antakya of the need to hold a Geneva conference “because American interests required this.”

One coalition member said that Ford’s meetings in Antakya convinced the opposition of the need to go to the negotiating table. But the coalition lacks a mechanism by which to name the members of its negotiating team, and is not in fact authorized to do so because its charter bars it from any negotiations until Assad steps down.

Because failure in Geneva is unacceptable, a French diplomatic source said that the Washington meeting served to reduce the risks for the failure of the first historic meeting between the regime and opposition after two years of fighting.

The same French source added that the three men were bent on studying many proposals that would govern the composition of the opposition’s delegation to Geneva, and come up with a formula that would satisfy Russian-American understandings and the balance of power within the Syrian opposition, particularly its two main poles: the National Coordination Committee on the inside, and the coalition abroad.

In short, the opposition will have to choose 15 delegates who would represent the internal and external opposition factions in Geneva 2.

A source in the Syrian opposition revealed the nature of Russian-American contacts aimed at putting Geneva on the right track, and agreeing in principle on the preliminary and changeable scenario by which the conference would be run, while laying the foundations of the construct around which the regime and opposition would meet prior to the middle of next June.

The Russians and American had first reached an understanding by which each of them would attempt to persuade its ally to go to Geneva; with the Americans talking to the opposition and the Russians with the regime. But Moscow soon revaluated its stance after it became clear that the regime was amenable to the idea, and that Russian interests dictated that it be present on both sides of the negotiating table, especially considering that the regime had, long ago, readied itself and named its attending representatives.

As a result, a reshuffling of the roles occurred in the last few days. The Americans, through Ford, strived to convince dissenters of the need to go to Geneva and negotiate, while the Russians not only pledged to convince the regime and its allies to attend, but also to seriously work toward making the conference a success and guaranteeing that commitments be honored.

The novelty in the matter is that the two sides divided responsibilities and conducted talks aimed at forming a balanced opposition delegation. This will have favorable repercussions on the future political process and will facilitate negotiations as a result of the influence that the superpowers have on participants, regardless of their affiliations.

Ford persuaded the coalition members he met in Antakya to participate in the Geneva conference; they included George Sabra, Farouk Tayfour, Samir Nashar, Abdel Ahad Stefou, Suhair al-Atassi, the commander of the Supreme Military Council Selim Idriss, and even Riad al-Turk whom he spoke with via Skype.

Ford proposed to coalition members that their acceptance to participate in the negotiations would guarantee the coalition leadership of the negotiating delegation in Geneva.

One Syrian opposition leader said that coalition warlords, such as Ahmed Ramadan and Mustafa Sabbagh, would lose quite a lot as a result of negotiations, which is why they object to any progress being achieved on the Geneva front.

The Americans tried in the last few hours to take advantage of the United Nations General Assembly vote on the coalition’s representation of the Syrian people, to impose parity of treatment between the Syrian government and the coalition, calling on both to sit at a round table as equals, for the coalition has garnered international legitimacy that equals that of the Damascus government, and should be able, on its own, to form a negotiating delegation without the participation of other opposition factions.

Hawks inside the alliance that back the coalition — such as France, Qatar and Turkey — have tried to exclude internal opposition factions from the negotiating delegation, and are still striving on a daily basis toward that end through contacts with European and Arab parties, while proposing that the NCC, the Building the Syrian State Movement and other internal opposition factions join the coalition’s ranks and participate in the Geneva conference as part of the coalition’s delegation. This is a proposal met by rejection from the Russians and internal Syrian opposition factions.

The last General Assembly vote was too weak to be used in the future to impose the coalition as Syria’s representative at the United Nations, for the Qatari proposal only garnered 107 votes, a clear decline from the 133 votes cast in favor of condemning the Syrian regime in August 2012.

The Russians succeeded in forming a sympathetic bloc to their position that includes the most important regional, international, demographically and economically influential entities; from Latin America, to most African nations, as well as its BRICS partners and Argentina.

One Western source said, “This is a blow to Qatari and Western ambitions, limiting the possibilities of adopting a future draft resolution that would give Syria’s seat at the United Nations to the coalition.”

A Syrian opposition source opined that, in the framework of talks to determine the makeup of the negotiating delegation, the Russians reevaluated their stance concerning the inclusion of Ali Haidar, Qadri Jamil, Joseph Soueid, and the Third Movement to the opposition’s delegation.

The Syrian government had demanded that ministers belonging to the Popular Peaceful Change Coalition be considered part of the opposition’s delegation. But Moscow felt that that would weaken the position of the independent internal opposition — represented by the NCC and other factions close to Russia — if the latter endorsed their entry into negotiations as part of the opposition.

The Russians therefore pressured the Syrian government into abandoning the idea, which in effect will not be totally abandoned unless negotiating delegation membership is split right in half between members of the NCC and its allies, and the coalition and its allies.

Arab and European talks are currently underway to gather representatives of the NCC and coalition in Vienna or Cairo, in order to form a joint delegation and agree on a common work agenda for Geneva.

The name of Riad Seif was proposed by both parties as head of the negotiating delegation, with Haytham Manna serving as an alternate if Seif’s health prevented him from attending the meetings.

Naming Manna for the rotating presidency faces objections from the Qatari, French and Turkish hawks, who can only accept him as a member of the delegation at best, while the Americans did not object to the proposal at all.

Eight European countries, in a joint letter, presented proposals relating to the negotiations process, including their call for the formation of a 10 to 20 member negotiating delegation that would guarantee proper representation.

The NCC is leaning toward nominating five of its members to Geneva, they are: Manna, Monzer Khaddam, Raja al-Nasser, Saleh Moussalam Mohammad, and Jamal Sheikh al-Baqi.

It is expected that the Washington meeting will determine the preliminary makeup of the coalition’s representation, while the latter will name its delegation on May 20, during its expanded Istanbul conference.

As for negotiations, a Syrian source knowledgeable about the ongoing contacts said that the Americans and Russians have agreed to keep negotiations open, and not to limit them to one Swiss meeting or a series of other subsequent meetings.

This open framework means that the Geneva meetings will result in a long and open political process unconstrained by any deadlines or time frames, in order to guarantee that negotiations not fail before they even begin. This will allow discussions to continue until an agreement is reached on the main points of contention, starting with the transitional government and ending with the constitutional declaration, prior to resorting to the Security Council in order to transform agreements into binding resolutions under Chapter VI of the UN Charter.

One figure of the coalition did not expect negotiations to be preceded by a cease-fire, for it is difficult for the opposition to impose a cessation of hostilities beyond some fronts controlled by a few of the Free Syrian Army’s units that fall under the command of the Supreme Military Council.

The same coalition figure said, “There are more than 1,200 combat battalions spread throughout Syrian territories. Salafist and jihadist factions will not acquiesce to a cease-fire. The negotiating process will probably begin Vietnamese style, whereby meetings would be held in Geneva while fighting continues on the ground.” He added, “The success of any cease-fire rests primarily on the regime. For if Syrian Army units abided by it, then the opposition community would be able to isolate any forces that object to the cessation of hostilities.”

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