The Syrian Settlement – Principles of Geneva 1 or the Concessions of Geneva 2?
06 March 2016
By Eyad Abu Shakra
I reckon that there is no political observer who expects much from the Geneva
3 talks on Syria. In fact, a senior western diplomat was frank when he
candidly expressed his doubts about chances of success as the High
Negotiations Committee (HNC) took its difficult decision to send its
delegation for talks with the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, along with
calls to implement international pledges regarding human issues. The HNC,
which was formed by the Riyadh conference and brought together the broadest
representation of Syrian opposition groups, was under immense pressure to
attend Geneva 3.
This pressure was international as de Mistura threatened the HNC with a fait
accopmli conference, Washington threatened the opposition that it would cut
off aid if its HNC did not attend and, of course Russian, as the Russian air
force is now at war with the Syrian people. The astonishing thing at this
point is that while Russia acts as a full political and military ‘partner' of
the Assad regime, it still insists on being an authority eligible to pick and
choose delegates of Assad's ''opposition''.
Actually, if we review the overall efforts made to stop the war in Syria since
the summer of 2011 when Bashar Al-Assad decided to crush the popular uprising
by force, we find two movements moving simultaneously in opposite directions:
1- There was a gradual decline in the cohesion of the group of countries that
stood by the Syrian uprising as the US and Iran were finalising the JCPOA
(i.e. the Iran nuclear deal).
2- As it became clear to Al-Assad's regime that it would not survive if left
to its own devices, all the hidden links kept in reserve for a rainy day, its
implicit alliances and subsequently its strategic role in the Middle East were
The countries that initially sided with the Syrian uprising joined together
under what was called the ''Friends of Syria'' and met in February 2012 in the
absence of Russia, China and Iran. The aid provided by the Western powers
claiming the ‘friendship' of the Syrian people, however, fell short of what
the Syrian opposition was asking for, namely, safe havens, no-fly zones, and
advanced and effective defensive weapons capable of neutralizing and deterring
Al-Assad's air force.
Then in June 2012 a meeting was held in Geneva, this time attended by Russia
and China, and set in motion a ''transitional'' process leading to ''A Syria
without Al-Assad. However, Russia supported by China adopted the regime's
demands that the priority should be ‘fighting terrorism', meaning the
opposition. At this point there was a clear difference of interpretation of
the Geneva (now known as Geneva 1) principles.
The Western ''Friends of Syria'' continued later on to refuse providing any
qualitative military aid to the opposition, especially, ‘The Free Syrian Army'
as ISIS was gaining ground in many parts of Syria, virtually, unopposed and
unhindered by the regime's army. Indeed, the regime intentionally exploited
the advances of ISIS against the ‘FSA', making common cause with it as spelt
out candidly by a Syrian intelligence Lebanese functionary.
By 2013 the US – Iran rapprochement was rapidly becoming a reality, more so
after the Muscat secret negotiations were divulged, and Hassan Rouhani won
Iran's presidential elections in June 2013. Almost immediately Washington
described his win as a victory for ''moderation'' and ''rationalism'' that
deserved a positive response. Indeed, within, few months, as soon as Al-Assad
realised that White House's threatening ‘red lines' were non-existent it used
chemical weapons in Greater Damascus while doing nothing about ISIS taking
over the city of Raqqah which became Syria's first provincial capital to fall
to the extremist terrorist organization. Washington, in turn, did nothing
about the chemical attack, and expressed its satisfaction that the Al-Assad
had handed in his chemical ‘arsenal'.
In January 2014 Geneva 2 was held without any positive results. Moscow stood
firm while Washington, not only retreated from its initial stance, but moved
even closer to the Russian interpretation of what was going on in Syria. Then,
in early March 2014 President Barack Obama sent a clear message ‘to whom it
may concern' through an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which he insinuated
that he regarded Iran as a trustworthy ally in the Middle East along with
Israel. Subsequently, Washington rhetoric against Al-Assad was getting
fainter, concentrating its argument on the fact that ''he has lost his
legitimacy'' as Raqqah became the declared ‘capital' of ISIS in the heart of
Both inside and outside Syria, letting down the Syrian uprising by 2015 led to
the proliferation of extremist groups against a marked erosion of frustrated
and desperate moderates, some of whom began bit by bit to leave the political
and military scene. Yet, despite this, and the active backing of Iran's
Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani militias, the
regime failed to gain the upper hand in the field.
Given the above stalemate, against the background of massacres, human
suffering, threats to a number of the regime's heartlands, and the West's move
to consider fighting ISIS as the priority in Syria, Russia joined the war in
October 2015 under the pretext of attacking ISIS.
Then, one month after the Russian intervention, which actually concentrated
its bombardment on the positions of the ‘FSA' and the ‘moderate' Opposition
groups, representatives of 17 countries connected with the Syrian crisis met
in the Austrian capital Vienna, including Iran, in the absence of the regime
and opposition. The meeting ended with agreeing on a ceasefire and a
‘framework for political transition', but not the future of Al-Assad.
Consequently, last December, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed a
‘road map' that begins with negotiations between the Syrian regime and
opposition aimed at reaching a ceasefire, forming a ‘transitional government'
within six months and conducting elections within 18 months, again saying
nothing about Al-Assad's role. But in the light of developing agreements
between Washington and Moscow, and the changes on the ground brought about by
the Russian military campaign, some reports have recently suggested that
Washington and Tehran have agreed that Al-Assad remains in office until 2022!
What should we expect now? It is obvious that the Syrian opposition has no
option but to continue its steadfastness, regardless of how huge the
disappointment is. Steadfastness without illusions!
The Syrian opposition is aware today that its ‘adversary' is also the
‘referee', and thus must not give it new excuses to continue betraying it.
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with
the newspaper since 1978.