European officials divided over Geneva II priorities

European officials attending the second round of the Geneva II conference are divided over what the priorities of the talks should be, with some focusing on humanitarian aid and others on a transitional government.

al-monitor UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listen to British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Geneva II peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann.

Topics covered

syria, humanitarian assistance, geneva ii, european union, bashar al-assad

Feb 11, 2014

During the Geneva conference on Syria, the West does not want the debate about where compromise should start to mutate into a causality dilemma similar to “which came first, the egg or the chicken?” Should the priority be a cease-fire and the delivery of aid or should it be entering into discussions about the transfer of power as a prelude to a settlement? To the Europeans, the outcome of such a debate is one and the same: deadlocked negotiations, the result of which would be wasted time that the opposition thinks the regime is trying to exploit. This is not to mention that the continuing fighting is further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis with each passing day.

While the regime’s delegation focuses on dealing with the Geneva provisions in order, so discussions about the transfer of power are postponed, it is noteworthy that some European countries are stressing the need for the starting point to revolve around a cessation of violence and the delivery of aid. This was evident in yesterday’s [Feb. 10] meeting of European Union foreign ministers, who discussed the Syrian dossier as the second round of the Geneva II negotiations got under way.

From the beginning, the humanitarian crisis was atop the list of priorities for Italy’s Foreign Ministry, which recently organized an international conference in this regard. Furthermore, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino toured Syrian refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria to determine the conditions there. In answering a question posed by As-Safir before meeting with her counterparts, Bonino said, “The priority here must be to stop the massacres and put an end to the humanitarian tragedy. The political process will be long, and might be rough and difficult, yet, during that time, there is no need for people to starve, be tortured or bombed.”

For Britain, however, the priorities in Geneva are different, with British Foreign Minister William Hague thinking that the main goal is to effectuate a transfer of power. Hague also responded to an As-Safir question and said, “There are two issues that must be constructively dealt with by the [Bashar al-]Assad regime in these negotiations. The first revolves around how to establish a transitional governing body in Syria, for this is the purpose of these negotiations as stated in the 2012 Geneva statement.” The second issue is the delivery of humanitarian aid through United Nations’ agencies, with Hague opining that the regime “was not prepared to make that a reality on any level so far.”

It is clear that making the humanitarian issue a second-tier priority is somewhat embarrassing for Britain and France, which do not want to be painted in such a light. As a result, they are both again striving to transfer this issue from the Geneva negotiating table to that of the Security Council. And despite the fact that such efforts have faltered as a result of constant Russian rejection, the British Foreign Minister indicated that his country would resubmit the matter this week before the United Nations to establish the humanitarian corridors needed to deliver relief aid. “The regime is trying to starve tens, even hundreds of thousands of people, and this is an additional crime,” Hague added.

If these efforts succeed, then negotiations will better focus on the issue of political transition and its precursors. European countries are of the opinion that Russia will not use its veto power once again to block a resolution concerning the humanitarian situation. In this regard, and in the course of answering As-Safir’s question, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said, “I think that the Security Council can no longer allow that a veto be used against a resolution with humanitarian implications, because Assad will benefit from such an action.” He therefore seemed optimistic that a UN resolution would be rendered about the humanitarian situation. Asselborn based his assumption on what he characterized as the “enormous pressure” exercised by Moscow on Damascus to allow limited relief efforts, with Homs being the latest manifestation of those efforts. Still, all will be predicated on next Thursday’s Security Council discussions that will follow the submission of a report by Valerie Amos, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

Nevertheless, amid the controversy about negotiating priorities, Asselborn stressed that without Iran’s presence in Geneva, "I do not think that a solution will be reached."

In this regard, a high-ranking European official told As-Safir that Geneva was successfully held, and the negotiating rounds are continuing because the premise of the conference was built on a “two-track” formula, used as the basis for negotiations. The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained that negotiations could continue along in two directions: the building of trust through discussing the situation on the ground, and at the same time, continuing work toward reaching a political transition formula.

In the same context, a Western diplomatic source from a pro-opposition country said that the regime delegation’s attempt to postpone discussing a “governing body” was “a diversion,” because “even when they said that they did not want to deal with this issue, they were actually discussing it in one way or another.” Also, according to the same diplomat, the Syrian president relinquishing power is “inevitable” in order to reach the political solution as established by the Geneva conference. He considered that “there is no future for Assad in a democratic, peaceful Syria.”

But, another source was less optimistic in this regard. A high-ranking diplomat from a European country that prefers to focus on the humanitarian situation said that the Homs cease-fire was an example of the Syrian regime’s policy. He explained, “The regime will continue on this course, step by step, and will cooperate only slightly, just to reduce the pressure it is being subjected to.” But he pointed out that this does not mean that the regime is now negotiating “as a victor,” because “the regime accepting a humanitarian cease-fire was also due to the realization that the Americans can do a lot, especially when it comes to their control over the flow of weapons to the opposition. Russia is also applying pressure, as it is not happy with the repeated accusations about it being responsible for the pictures of starvation broadcast to the world every day.”

Speaking to As-Safir about what can be done to make Geneva a success, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said, “We are counting on the realization of all parties that the solution can only be political and not military.” He believes that the issue does not revolve around proclaiming pessimism or optimism, for it is possible to “achieve a gradual rapprochement between the two parties in relation to a political solution.” Bildt concluded by saying, “But I do not expect that a settlement [will] be attained tomorrow.”

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