Syria: The Road to Geneva

The suspense over the holding of the Geneva II Conference on Syria appeared to have finally ended on 18 January with the decision of the principal opposition group – the Syrian National Coalition (SNCo)– to attend, but it has now re-emerged with their threat to withdraw if Iran is invited to the proceedings.

However I don’t think there is as much real uncertainty as the press coverage implies. The UN had already taken out insurance on the event by inviting a wide range of states to participate– a total of 32 (33 with Iran) – effectively turning it into an international conference on Syria, rather than a purely bilateral peace negotiation. (The first day will involve all the participating delegations in a preliminary discussion in Montreux, with bilateral negotiations mediated by Brahimi starting on the 24th in Geneva).That means that several hundred upper class flights and 5-star hotel rooms have been booked in Geneva, virtually ensuring that some sort of international deliberation on Syria will commence on 22 January.

Moreover the US and the “Friends of Syria” are putting intense pressure on the SNCo to attend, while at the same time Russia has been doing its best to woo them, given the limitations of its being betrothed to the Asad regime. The drawn-out hesitations of the SNCO are thus conditioned more by its need to reassure various forces back home than expressing any real uncertainty about its eventual participation.

So – what are the intentions of the main players at Geneva II and what, if anything can we expect to emerge from it.? And how should the international movement of Solidarity with the Syrian revolution be responding?

The Godfathers – the US and Russia

The United States and Russia share a common concern to prevent the destabilisation of a complex and inter-twined region and to contain the development of international “terrorist” forces. The US’s parochial obsession with any whiff  of “al-Qaeda (9/11 casts a long and deep shadow) has prevented it from adopting a consistent strategy towards the Syrian conflict and limited its support for the anti-Asad forces to either tokenistic light weaponry or indirect assistance via partners such as Saudi Arabia. Russia, of course, has the additional motivation of wanting to support an ally that plays an important role in preserving its influence in an important geo-strategic region and counter-balancing US global hegemony.

What this means is that both have a real interest in seeing Geneva II succeed in producing some kind of negotiated resolution of the conflict, and are more concerned with order and stability than with meeting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. This is reflected in the parameters for the negotiations inherited from Geneva I (see below).

The Regime

The Syrian regime has been pressured into this process by its Russian patrons. Throughout the course of the conflict the regime has repeatedly insisted that it will not negotiate with “terrorists” – and since it has labelled anyone who actively opposes it as a “terrorist” (even those who confronted the security forces with flowers) that has meant a refusal to negotiate with anyone except itself. It entered into the Geneva process in the hope that the opposition would refuse to participate, allowing it to present an image of openness to peace-making while not actually having to give any ground. To try and ensure that outcome it launched a provocative campaign of stepping up the bombardment of opposition areas on the eve of a mooted peace process.

The regime’s prime tactic for the Conference is to try and refocus discussion on the issue of “combatting terrorism”rather than its own repressive record and the demands for real political change. This is an operation which may play well with some of the participants in the opening round, but is going to quickly run out of steam once serious, bi-lateral negotiations begin on 24 January in Geneva.

The delegation chosen by the Asad regime reflects this approach.  . Its headed by a regime hard-liner – the Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (a Baath party stalwart) who, along with his deputy Faisal Mikdal, has been making public pronouncements insisting that Asad will be standing for re-election in 2014. To further ensure that loyalty to the President is not overlooked in these proceedings, Asad’s notorious “Political and Media Advisor” Bouthaina Shabaan, is named as a “Deputy Head”of the delegation.

So the delegation basically comprises a combination of Foreign ministry officials and PR specialists. Not a single official concerned with military affairs (rather important for peace making); no one from the Ministry of Reconciliation Affairs (who might be thought to have a role to play in any implementation). It seems the regime regard these proceedings as a combination of speech-making and spin.

And even then they have hedged their bets. Muallem has sent a letter to the UN General Secretary in which he expresses reservations about the Geneva framework; and he has also insisted that anything agreed at Geneva would be subject to a referendum (a referendum presided over by the regime and its security apparatuses – whose outcome would therefore be of their choosing)

The Ghost of Geneva I

In order to understand the possible dynamic of any Geneva II negotiations we need to remind ourselves of the content of the June 2012 Geneva Communique on which they are based. This called for:

The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.

…The public services must be preserved or restored. This includes the military forces and security services.

However, all governmental institutions, including the intelligence services, have to perform according to human rights and professional standards and operate under a top leadership that inspires public confidence, under the control of the transitional governing body.

All parties must cooperate with the transitional governing body in ensuring the permanent cessation of violence. This includes completion of withdrawals and addressing the issue of the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups. (my emphasis)

This insistence on maintaining core regime institutions is based on supposed lessons drawn from the US occupation of Iraq, where the occupation authorities’ sweeping dismissal of Baathist military and state personnel led to political chaos and insurgency. It is of course a false and mechanical reasoning, since the structure of power in a Syria in the midst of an hypothetical “negotiated transition” would be totally different to that of Iraq in the wake of a sweeping military defeat.

What this formula envisages is essentially a “Zimbabwe” model: one in which an authoritarian regime and a democratic opposition are welded together without any modification of the underlying institutional power structures. The outcome is entirely predictable: the opposition gets an upgrade in desks and limousines; the regime gets to hang on to power.

Such an approach to the Syrian situation, far from facilitating a peaceful transition, is a piece of nonsense that guarantees the failure of Geneva II under even the most optimistic scenario.

Diplomats in Wonderland

Let’s just try and envisage for a moment how it would play out in practice (something western policy makers have clearly never tried to do.) Coming out of Geneva there would be a new government drawn at best 50% from the regime, 50% from the opposition. With the Syrian Arab Army being kept in place , that would mean the Ministry of Defence going to a regime General. Perhaps it would be balanced by the Ministry of the Interior going to the opposition – with “full executive power” over Syria’s four separate intelligence agencies and 85 000 secret policemen? But as life-time Asad loyalists these professional torturers are not going to take orders from just anyone: they will create their own chain of command –to the president if Asad is left in office; to the nearest Baathist minister if he is not. The result would be an administration split down the middle on political lines, with a Baathist faction having at its disposal the repressive machinery of the state, the remnants of the Baath Party, and associated government officials; meanwhile the opposition  would be reduced to waving about bits of paper proclaiming their “full executive authority”. And in the midst of all this someone will be rushing around trying to persuade the armed opposition to surrender their weapons. With Iraq in mind, one is inclined to invoke Marx’s classical aphorism  of history repeating itself “first as tragedy ,then as farce” – except in this case it would be both tragedy and farce.

This demonstrates why the question of removing Asad from the picture is so crucial – its not a matter of personalities or moral condemnation, but of hard power politics – Asad in office means the regime in power, whatever the bits of paper may say.

Geeting Real

While this package sounds disturbing, in reality, we can relax – it is so full of contradictions and absurditiesthat it has no hope of getting off the ground. But that leaves two big questions – just how quickly will it fall apart? and who is going to be hardest hit by the fall out when it does come crashing down?

There could be opportunities here for a cohesive opposition and skilled negotiators. The process of negotiation has its own logic, and it should be possible to exploit this Mad Hatters Tea party to win some breathing space for the Syrian people, by insisting on easing the sieges, stopping bombardments of civilian areas, and releasing detainees as essential confidence-building measures before serious talk can begin. It would be hard for the regime and its patrons to dismiss such demands out of hand without losing all credibility – and this under the intense gaze of 30+ diplomatic missions and the world press.

However the Syrian National Coalition is neither politically skilled nor cohesive, (although one interesting development in the opposition camp has been the emergence of a group of Syrian Women who seem to have a clearer focus and greater cohesion. While they are peripheral to the main process they seem to have the ear of Brahimi and may be able to have some impact even from the fringes.)

Role of the Solidarity Movement.

How then should the international solidarity movement be responding to this situation?  I think the first objective should be to focus attention on the issues I have referred to above: the sieges and bombardment of opposition areas, and release of detainees. We should be highlighting voices from within Syria who are raising these demands;  If this can be synchronised with some Syrian voices at Geneva so much the better.

The second objective is to prepare for the collapse of Geneva II: this is going to be followed by a tidal wave of spin from the regime and its patrons, who will try and place the blame on the opposition – both those at Geneva and those waging the struggle back home. The regime is going to try and emerge from Geneva smelling of roses; we need to ensure that it comes out smelling of the dung heap of repression.


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