This morning [Dec. 20], the last trilateral meeting before the Geneva II conference was held between the Russian and American delegations, mediated by a UN team headed by Lakhdar Brahimi. However, this meeting will not provide all the hoped-for answers necessary to launching the political process, expected to begin Jan. 22. Brahimi has been holding meetings with the Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov, as well as the US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and the US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. They will be joined in the afternoon by representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as by Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
The meeting at the Palais des Nations is expected to yield answers from the Americans in particular on a number of issues: the precise nature of the Syrian opposition delegation, for example, and whether or not that delegation will include jihadists from the Islamic Front. Observers are also awaiting a conclusive answer to the question of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s attendance. A Russo-American agreement had established that the Americans would take responsibility for the principal efforts at forging a coalition from the Syrian opposition. In this, Ford preferred to include the opposition’s various wings, but under the umbrella of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which could be manipulated and controlled.
The opposition’s delegation is not expected to announce the names of its delegates, because the coalition has yet to make a decision officially as to whether or not it will attend Geneva II. The question of [its] official participation has been put on hold pending the outcome of elections to the SNC’s presidency and political council. These have been tentatively scheduled for Jan. 7. However, that date is too late to meet the deadline set by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for all parties to name the members of their delegates.
Nevertheless, the expanding influence of the Islamic Front has further complicated the efforts of the American ambassador to assemble an opposition delegation qualified to represent and negotiate on behalf of the rebels without including persons who have contributed to manufacturing the crisis. As one prominent Syrian dissident put it, the goal is to find representatives who are capable of producing a solution and assuming the reins of governmental authority in Syria.
It has become clear that the rising prominence of the jihadists on the battlefield, combined with the collapse of the Free Syrian Army, has denuded the Syrian opposition coalition of its various military wings and, therefore, of its ability to make the decision to go to Geneva. This follows from the simple fact that the coalition is incapable of fulfilling any commitment it might make, since the main rebel military groups are not subject to the fruits of any negotiations. This extends even to the confidence-building measures laid down by the Geneva announcement, such as the imposition of a cease-fire. Thus it will be difficult to extract concessions from the regime, such as a lifting of the siege on certain rebel-held areas, in light of the regime’s policy of pursuing a military solution. And, indeed, the regime continues to seek this policy.
The likely upshot is that those forces which have no interest in attending Geneva have become the dominant force in the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, the moderate, centrist currents in the opposition withered away and, on the other hand, the regime has successfully tested its ability to regain the initiative militarily (with the aid of its allies) and to halt the depletion of its forces through military and political defections. The Islamic Front and the regime are both gambling on a military victory. Both believe that they are capable of achieving a decisive win militarily, without offering up any of the concessions that would be the inevitable price of any political settlement. Similarly, the broad Saudi offensive against the Syrian front will effectively bar any solution that does not begin with the overthrow of the Syrian regime.
There was an American attempt to engage Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid in negotiations before their incorporation into the Islamic Front, but it failed roughly six weeks ago at a meeting held in Ankara and attended by Hassan Abboud, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader. Moreover, two days ago, the American ambassador failed to persuade the Islamic Front to return to the negotiating table.
A source close to the Syrian National Council said that Hassan Abboud, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most important jihadist factions, had conditioned his attendance on the international community withdrawing its recognition of the coalition and the FSA command's Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by Salim Idriss. He also demanded the recognition of the Islamist factions and turning the page on negotiations with the Syrian regime. It appears that including the jihadists and the Islamic Front in the Geneva negotiations is one of the Americans’ misplaced bets. The groups they have so far contacted cannot be controlled, since they oppose Geneva to begin with.
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, preemptively declared his refusal to accept the results of the international conference in Switzerland in an interview aired on Al Jazeera. In his words, “We will not recognize the expected results of the Geneva II conference. Those participating do not represent the people who sacrificed their lives and their blood.” He added: “The participants in Geneva II are not represented at all on the ground [in Syria], and we will not allow the game that is Geneva II to deceive the [Islamic] Ummah.”
Most likely, the final strategy of the negotiations process will not culminate in Geneva. Brahimi cannot conclude either until he obtains the names of those participating in the negotiations. He will therefore resort to the traditional solution, i.e., delaying discussion of divisive issues until the final stages, while working in the meantime on measures to build confidence between the parties.
Brahimi is waiting for nine representatives from the opposition to assemble within the negotiations hall, as well as six others to be put on hold should they be needed. It is expected that the Syrian government will announce this coming Sunday the names of its representatives in the delegation headed to Montreux. The Syrian deputy Foreign Minister, Faysal al-Miqdad declared that no one can prevent President Bashar al-Assad from putting himself forward as a candidate for another presidential term in 2014, noting that Damascus had already assembled its delegation for attending the summit. He went on to say, “The official delegation consists of nine members and five advisers who will participate in the conference. We are fully ready, and will announce the names of the delegates in short order.”
It has also become clear that the regime and the opposition have parted ways with regard to the preliminary meetings that were to precede the meeting in Montreux. The preparatory meeting was a demand advanced by the Russians in order to test the possibility of holding the negotiations in Moscow, before going to Geneva II.
Today’s preparatory meeting must settle the question of Iran’s participation in the conference, as well as of Saudi Arabia’s. The US continues to oppose including Tehran in Geneva II.
If the opposition’s most prominent blocs — the National Council, the Coordinating Committees, the Syrian Democratic Platform, the Building the Syrian State Party — persist in their failure to coalesce around a delegation, then two possibilities emerge, according to sources in the Syrian opposition. The first of these is that Geneva will proceed and the Syrian opposition will be represented by whomever happens to attend; the number of potential candidates is vast beyond counting, irrespective of their actual capacity to represent the Syrian opposition. The second possibility is that Geneva will be delayed to a later date, perhaps in February. Kurdish political leaders in Erbil have suggested that Syria’s Kurds also demand to be represented by an independent delegation, separate from both the government and the opposition. They have indicated that they will present a demand in this regard to the United Nations.
A member of the Syrian opposition close to the coalition stated that the groundwork for the conference that will determine Syria’s future must be prepared well. It can be delayed, if circumstances require, to prevent it from failing and wasting an opportunity to end the war. There are other alternatives to negotiations, under UN auspices, including entering into bilateral negotiations between representatives of the opposition and the regime. Moreover, there is another alternative that has been put forward for discussion in both regime and opposition circles, on condition that both the Russians and Americans attend to guarantee progress toward any given solution. Geneva does not necessarily have to be the primary framework for announcing this alternative.
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