Getting to Geneva II: Three Challenges

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Regional discontent and Lakhdar Brahimi’s tenuous connections with parties to the Syrian conflict pose obstacles to setting out a precise date and framework for the Geneva II conference.

Western Diplomatic sources told Al-Hayat that three obstacles stand in the way of the Geneva II conference scheduled for mid-November. The sources noted that the past days have witnessed intensive meetings between the Friends of Syria Group, comprising 11 countries, so as to find common ground for divergent stances regarding the international conference. Additionally, there are talks about postponing the conference for a few months, until the necessary conditions are there.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have asked the UN to hold the conference as soon as possible, given that the date was set for mid-November. This came in tandem with the announcement by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that holding the conference as scheduled was not certain.

The sources said that there are three obstacles impeding the conference. The first is related to the gap between the regional stance and the international understanding that was expressed through the American-Russian agreement on destroying chemical weapons in Syria, according to a schedule that ends by 2014, simultaneously with the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s mandate.

The sources said, “Some Western countries are closer to the Russian stance than regional countries, which have been allied with the United States over the last two years.” The sources noted that regional countries are still insisting on “changing the balance of power on the ground” before heading to Geneva II talks. The countries felt great disappointment after the chemical deal, while US officials are advocating for a non-military solution, saying that the statement of Geneva I issued in June 2012 mentioned a political solution. Furthermore, Washington and some of its allies believe that the agreement with Moscow is “the beginning of a political understanding that pertains to solving the crisis and forming a transitional government in Syria.”

The sources added that last week Western countries demanded during meetings with the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) military council that the provision of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles be stopped. The latter were delivered into Syria pursuant to a deal providing 400 tons of weapons to the opposition. Other sources explained that the reason put forward in the meeting was the fear of these weapons reaching ISIS fighters [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham], while it was thought that the real reason was political and aimed to “pressure the opposition to change its political considerations and expectations toward the international conference.”

The last point of the regional dimension is related to Iran. The sources said that, until now, Iranian officials did not accept the statement of Geneva I and the formation of a transitional government with full powers. They noted that Iran is still talking about “a Syrian-Syrian solution resulting from a national dialogue.” The sources explained that the “Russian-Iranian support to the regime will continue. However, Western countries are asking: Will the two countries start thinking about a political solution and a political process in Syria?”

The second obstacle is related to international mediation. The same Western sources said that Brahimi has been absent on the Syrian scene for months and has lost his contacts and ties with the parties to the Syrian conflict. They noted that his representative in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, is currently making some calls. “Brahimi was preoccupied with international calls with Russia and the US more than with building trust with Syrians,” the sources said, saying that last week, he met with the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Ahmad Jarba in New York. “He has not visited Damascus for months, however, and his relationship with the Syrian government is bad.”

The third obstacle is related to the Syrian parties themselves. The sources explained that the regime is feeling victorious after the Russian-American agreement and the military strike was prevented. This is why the official Syrian rhetoric is focusing on “the refusal of dialogue with the armed opposition.” It has also refused the participation of the Syrian opposition abroad in Geneva II talks, in addition to opposition members who supported the strike on Syria.

Additionally, there were talks about the possibility of postponing presidential elections due to the security situation and the need for a period of one year to destroy chemical weapons. At the same time, leaders of the coalition are disappointed with the stance Washington has taken, especially with the escalation of praise from the part of the US toward the way the Syrian regime dealt with the chemical issue. The regime was transformed into an interlocutor and some countries showed willingness to “visit Damascus, since it is destroying chemical weapons.”

According to the sources, the coalition is under the pressure of Western countries, which are demanding its participation in the Geneva II talks, while some of its regional allies are pressuring in the other direction.  On the field, leaders of military brigades are acting in an extreme manner; they started to “form their own political and military bodies to express their stances, which signify a bottom-up rise of leaders.”

American ambassador Robert Ford tried to provide the coalition with reassurances when they met in Istanbul last week by talking about “change in the power balance on the ground through traditional rather than avant-garde weapons, for fear of the latter being acquired by ISIS.” Ford denied that Washington stopped recognizing the coalition, as happened with the Syrian National Council, noting that weakness befell the opposition after prominent military brigades stopped recognizing the council. Sources reported Ford as saying that acknowledging the [opposition coalition] government will remain possible if the US made sure that fighters in the field are responding to the coalition, and that the latter is able to influence and restore ties in the field.

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Found in: us intervention in syria, syrian opposition, syrian conflict, sergey lavrov, secretary of state john kerry, russian diplomacy in syrian crisis, lakhdar brahimi, geneva ii
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