In a previous post I discussed the prospects for the Geneva II conference on Syria, indicating both the pitfalls and possibilities this initiative held out for the Syrian struggle. The first session of the Conference finished on Friday, with the UN mediator Lakkhdar Brahimi indicating that no significant progress had been made. So what is the balance sheet of this first round?
The first thing to note is that the main diplomatic objective of the Syrian regime – to shift the framework of the conference from discussing the need for political change in Syria to one focused on combatting “terrorism” – fell completely flat. This manoeuvre only received wholehearted support from one of the forty participants – the pro-regime Lebanese government. The Russians endorsed it but in a relatively lukewarm way, accompanied by a call for “efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria…”. The rest of the delegations’ statements either blamed the Syrian regime for the country’s humanitarian disaster and emphasised the need for political change or took a neutral stance, highlighting the humanitarian crisis but not pointing the finger at either side and calling for a loosely defined “political solution”. This included China,and India although the latter made an explicit endorsement of the Geneva I call for “the formation of a transitional governing body.”
The second thing of note was the statement from John Kerry insisting that Asad could not be part of any transitional government, scotching the concern that the US was shifting towards an “Asad as the lesser evil” viewpoint. Of course, US strategy could shift over the longer term and behind the scenes, but for that to happen there would have to be some sign that the Asad regime was prepared to give enough ground to make a credible (or even incredible) political solution possible.
That brings us to the third striking feature of the week – the complete and unblinking obduracy of the Government delegation. That comes as no surprise to those who have spent any time studying the nature of Asad’s regime – but it does seem to have caught many of those present at Montreux and Geneva unawares: including the Russians.
I noted in the previous post that the Regime delegation was heavily weighted towards its PR apparatus (reinforced by the fact that its key PR figure Bouthaina Shaaban is close to Asad). Indeed it’s fair to say that in this round of the proceedings the prize that was being played for was the award for best public presentation. That without doubt, must go to the Opposition – not entirely because of their own skills, but also because of the complete ham-handedness of the Government side.
Things started to go wrong for the regime from the kick-off. The head of their delegation, Foreign Minister and Deputy PM Walid Muallem, managed to combine undiplomatic language and arrogance in a speech that took up twice his allotted time, provoking an uncharacteristic remonstrance from Ban ki-Moon.
The ensuing PR battle reproduced some of the features of the armed conflict: the regime brought in heavy artillery, with a major newsroom operation by SANA, but was deficient in human resources: The main role as press spokesperson went to Shaaban – but unfortunately she only operates in one gear, producing a number of memorable one-liners, such as the assertion that the delivery of humanitarian aid to 3000 people starving in Homs was “a minor issue”.
The unfamiliar setting of Geneva created unsettling experiences for regime officials not used to working outside the authoritarian cocoon of Damascus, providing the international press with a concentrated lesson in the character of the Baathist regime. The Minister of Information panicked when placed in the unfamiliar position of being called on to provide information; the deputy foreign minister labelled a journalist who was too forceful in pressing a question as a “terrorist”.
But they met their match in the formidable figure of Fatima Khan, mother of Dr Abbas Khan, the British aid worker who Syrian security services murdered on the eve of the Confererence:
The Opposition team had its hiccups but the press staff handled their job well, using a range of social media – Twitter, Facebook and even Reddit – to communicate their case and elicit feedback.
So much for the form – what about the content of the Conference proceedings? The opposition opened well by placing the issues of humanitarian access and release of detainees on the agenda from the start. The regime stonewalled, offering to allow women and children to leave but refusing to allow food to enter. Unfortunately Brahimi did not press the issue (there are various styles of mediating, but Brahimi’s seems especially passive)
The opposition delegation seemed not to know how to respond to this, and while the press team continued to raise the humanitarian issues vocally, they allowed the negotiations to move on to the political agenda (I get the impression they harbour illusions that Geneva can produce a politically meaningful outcome.) However some aid was eventually allowed through to the Palestinian settlement at Yarmouk – the only real achievement of the week.
After some sparring and moving of alternate statements (the regime forefronting “terrorism”, the opposition “transition”) the Government delegation dug-in, making it clear that Geneva Communique or no, political change was not on their agenda. They tabled a Communique which combined general virtuous with a clause the like of which has not been seen since the Stalin Constitution of 1937:
The Syrian Arab Republic is a democratic country on the basis of political pluralism, the rule of law and the independence of judiciary and citizenship and protecting national unity and cultural diversity of the components of the Syrian society and protecting public freedom.
Not surprisingly, the opposition rejected this – to much mock indignation from the government side – and that was that.
The session closed with a proposal that it reconvene on 10 February – a suggestion which the opposition agreed to but the government said they would have to consult on (presumably to get clearance from the boss)
So what next? It seems fairly clear that the Russians are not happy with the Syrian’s intractable stance over issues like humanitarian access and prisoner release (both of which Russian foreign minister Lavrov had promised progress on in the build up to the conference.) This was signalled by Lavrov’s decision to invite Jarba and the opposition to Moscow for talks.
The regime team has gone home to lick its wounds and reformulate its strategy. Its principal thrust is to pick holes in the Geneva Communique and complain about the composition of the opposition delegation. As the second round approaches they are going to find themselves caught in a logical thicket. Geneva I has an explicit provision that “full executive authority” must pass to a “transition authority”; but the Syrian constitution is Presidential – executive power is invested in the President. So it’s impossible to work within the framework of Geneva and leave the presidency untouched. Of course, in theory, Asad could return to his original skill set as Minister of Health; or remain as a titular President stripped of constitutional power. As I indicated in my last post, there would be real dangers for the opposition in the latter – but in practice the regime is never going to accept either of these.
The Russians are trying sidestep this problem by concentrating on the alleged unrepresentative character of the opposition, taking up the long-standing regime claim that the “internal opposition” should be included. That term has been bandied around a lot, without being given any clear content. The Russians have now specified that it refers to the National Coordination Body, the Kurds (in some form), and “National Front for Change and Liberation”. The idea is presumably to bring some Asad-friendly reinforcements into the process. But that won’t really run either: the NCB is even less representative of forces on the ground than the Syrian Coalition, and while inclined to take a softly-softly approach to the regime has spent too long in Asad’s prisons to contemplate handing him another 7 years in power; the Kurdish opposition is as fractious as the Syrian exiles (and one wing is included in the Coalition delegation) moreover they wants regional autonomy – difficult to reconcile with the regime’s chest thumping about “territorial integrity”; that only leaves the National Front, which is part of the regime’s “official opposition” The only problem is that they are so “official” that they are in the government (Ali Haider is minister of National Reconciliation) so if they turn up at Geneva it would seem more logical to seat them with the government that with the Opposition.
Really the Opposition has a simple task before it in Round II –sit back and wait for the Regime side to tie itself in knots. The prize in this round will go to “the last delegation standing” – and with a little patience that should be the Opposition.
However while all this shadow boxing is taking place we must not forget the situation on the ground. Each day that the talks were taking place in Geneva the regime killed 70 civilians, 20 of them children. Most recently there has been a barrel bomb blitz on Aleppo – probably a Regime manoeuvre to solve its diplomatic problems by driving the Opposition into breaking off talks – a manoeuvre executed at the at cost of more than 90 lives.