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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 all uncovered.

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 Syria.

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.  

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