Planning Proceeds for Geneva II Syria Conference

The Geneva II Syria conference is making progress even as the prospect grows of US military strikes against Syria.

al-monitor A member of the Free Syrian Army is seen in a damaged building in Salah al-Din neighborhood in central Aleppo, Aug. 24, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Loubna Mrie.

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syrian, russia, geneva, diplomacy

Aug 26, 2013

The Syrian opposition buried the idea of a Geneva conference the moment it announced that there was a chemical attack in Ghouta, Damascus. But the Russians, the Americans and Westerners in general have said nothing about the conference’s fate, which means that the preparations for The Hague meeting are ongoing.

The rejection of both the Geneva conference and the preparatory meeting at The Hague next week came from Syrian National Council leader George Sabra. But that has always been his disposition, so nobody was surprised by him declaring the death of a political settlement with the Syrian regime. However, the Syrian National Coalition said nothing that indicated a change in the positions announced during the US contacts with coalition members in the past few weeks, with the exception of coalition member Kamal al-Labwani, who refused “to sit down with the people’s killer in order to look for a peaceful settlement.”

There are efforts to re-open the channels of communication between Damascus and the UN via its Arab envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. This move is a follow-up step to the Aug. 28 US-Russian meeting in The Hague. Contacts between Brahimi and Damascus have been cut off since December 2012.

Brahimi himself has insinuated that his mediating role should be revived after the international sponsors, which will preside over the conference, complete the Geneva II conference’s “road map” and issue the invitations to the parties who will agree to attend.

A few days before talks about returning to Geneva had started, Brahimi recalled the reasons for the break in relations between him and Damascus. Brahimi told the UN Bulletin that he hasn’t been to Syria in nine months and that he found President Bashar al-Assad’s speech in the opera hall in January 2013, "disappointing" because he was waiting to hear Assad’s response to the negotiating plan. Brahimi also complained that "the Syrian media at the time kept criticizing [his] statements and even treated [him] in a humiliating manner."

After Brahimi described Assad’s speech as "sectarian," Damascus launched a media campaign against Brahimi, accusing him of bias. Brahimi also interpreted the Geneva accord in a way that was incongruent with his role as mediator by demanding that Assad step down.

Someone close to Brahimi said that the latter’s assistant in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, is still the only channel with Syrian authorities. Brahimi has started a rapprochement with Tehran and has contacted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hoping that Tehran would help find a way out of the Syrian war. While it seems obvious that Brahimi’s first meeting in Damascus will not be with Assad, the person close to Brahimi said that the latter will not go to the Syrian capital without having the meetings and appointments with Syrian officials set in advance.

The renewed talk about Brahimi indicates that the Geneva II conference is nearing. After the Americans and the Russians meet in The Hague and rework their understandings about Syria, Brahimi may be invited to a tripartite meeting in Geneva, which would signal that the road to Geneva II is clear, despite all the complications. An Arab diplomatic source quoted Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying that the Russian delegation is very optimistic and that The Hague meeting will be successful. A Syrian dissident quoted Gatilov as saying that the Americans have changed many of their positions and conditions about a political settlement in Syria.

Much has happened since the Westerners shut the doors to the political process when Qusair fell in June. Back then, some opposed going back to the negotiating table because it would be tantamount to surrender, given the power imbalance caused by the Qusair battle. But they changed their minds now. Whatever was left of the Friends of Syria group agreed to the Geneva II conference, but only after the power balance is adjusted in the opposition’s favor. Within two months, the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan has rallied the war rooms present on the borders of Turkey and Jordan. Riyadh has become the true active front with Damascus. Riyadh poured high-grade weapons in the Syrian north and south and it reorganized the National Coalition by placing it directly under Bandar’s auspices.

The profound changes that have taken place have redirected the compass toward Geneva. The victories that the Syrian opposition tried to achieve in the north were limited to only a few neighborhoods in Aleppo, and those were quickly recovered by the army. Almost the same scenario happened in Deir al-Zour. The recent breakthrough in the Latakia countryside turned into a defeat a few days later. The operation revealed that there was poor coordination between the armed battalions. The opposition’s Unified Military Council has lost some control over the fighting groups in favor of the jihadists, most of whom revolve in the orbit of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria organization, especially in the north.

In addition, from now on any changes in the military balance of power will only benefit the groups actually fighting the Syrian army — i.e., the jihadist groups — which are fighting all the battles on the ground. And if the jihadists win, it will not benefit those wishing to move the political process forward or lead the transitional government. It goes without saying that the non-jihadist forces’ presence in the political process has become a prisoner of their regional and international sponsors that installed them because those forces don’t have much influence on the ground in Syria. Even their claim of representation of the revolution is weakening as a war that is increasingly being led by jihadists escalates.

Given the current situation of the Syrian opposition, going to the Geneva II conference is starting to look more like a lifeline than a luxury, unless the opposition wishes to risk losing whatever is left of Syria. There is talk of a period of six months, until the end of 2013, to test the opposition’s ability to change the military balance of power. But that doesn’t that seem likely.

The opposition plans to make a breakthrough in the south by using 5,000 volunteer fighters trained in camps in Jordan. But that area, the Damascus front, is still protected by the Syrian army’s first corps with its five armored divisions. It is not yet known whether the opposition’s troops can score a significant breakthrough against the Syrian army’s best troops, which, in Khirbet Ghazaleh a few months ago, managed to tear apart the opposition’s Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in a few hours and open up the Damascus-Daraa road. No opposition force can coordinate an attack against the Syrian army in the Houran plain then move toward south Damascus, because the Syrian army there has superior firepower.

Syrian oppositionists say that the Americans going to The Hague have a clearer vision about the “Geneva road map.” One oppositionist quoted a US official who is responsible for the Syrian file as saying that, in light of the fact that Syria has turned into a hotbed of terrorism in the Middle East, the Americans want any authority that replaces Assad to be a US ally in its fight against terrorism.

The US official said that US policy in the region is still driven by Israel’s security, and that there won’t be an obstacle in reaching an understanding with Russia about fighting terrorism. He also said that there is no American objection to a Russian base in Tartus, but that there is a great concern about the presence of Russian S-300 missiles in the Syrians’ hands. The official added that the participation of the Iranians in Geneva is no longer a problem, but that the form of participation is the problem: Should the Iranians be present inside the negotiating hall or near it?

According to the “road map” that Ambassador Robert Ford will present at The Hague, the Americans will propose a cease-fire, overseen by a joint force of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian army. The Americans will try to get the FSA involved in the political process to pave the way into introducing the FSA into the transitional government. Ford has ruled out resorting to an international separation force. The oppositionists said that the idea of ​​a force consisting of 80,000 foreign troops was raised to the United States but ruled out because of its the high cost.

The Americans are suggesting that areas with clear ethnic or sectarian character handle their own security during the transition. The minorities will have to develop and arm self-defense committees to protect their areas as they await the return of the central authority or the development of regional councils that would rule their areas. Critics say that the American vision lays the foundations for a decentralized state and sectarian quotas while the central authority in Damascus would move to the Sunni majority.

The “road map” has put the Syrian parties directly under the roof of a US-Russian understanding. As soon as Brahimi opens the conference, delegations of Russian and American technicians and experts will sit alongside the two opposing Syrian sides to facilitate the negotiations. The US-Russian understanding will impose itself on the Syrian delegations, especially regarding the major contentious issues, such as Assad’s fate or how to restructure the army and security services. Without US-Russian sponsorship, the Americans fear that the Geneva II conference may turn into a never-ending process.

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