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Syria — political process stumbles

Feb 04,2014 - Last updated at Feb 04,2014

The first round of the much anticipated Geneva II negotiations on Syria was a complete failure despite attempts by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to make it appear less so.

He told reporters that he had “observed a little bit of common ground; perhaps more than the two sides realise or recognise”.

But in reality, the two sides agreed on nothing of substance and Damascus is yet to confirm its participation in a second round of talks in Geneva on February 10.

So what went wrong?

From the onset it was clear that the regime’s delegation was going to Switzerland with specific orders not to engage the opposition on crucial points, primarily the issue of creating a transitional body in Syria with full powers.

Foreign Minister Walid Al Mouallem’s long-winded speech said nothing about the struggle of the Syrian people to achieve change. It was a defiant speech that blamed neighbours and others for attempting to destroy the Syrian state.

It totally ignored the requirements of the Geneva I communiqué of June 2012 or relevant UN Security Council Resolution 2118.

Observers were also critical of the weak performance of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and its President Ahmad Al Jarba.

Overall, the government delegation appeared confident and resolute, while the opposition was still reeling from a wave of withdrawals few days before the convening of the conference.

The government delegation raised valid questions about the credentials of the opposition that claims to represent the Syrian people and the armed rebels.

Perhaps it was a miscalculation by Brahimi that he swiftly moved to the most cumbersome point in the negotiations: the formation of a transitional body.

Instead, he should have concentrated his efforts on confidence-building measures.

Most importantly, achieving a ceasefire in certain areas, opening up humanitarian corridors and ending the siege of old Homs and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

The two sides reached a provisional understanding on relieving stranded civilians in Homs, but failed to agree on steps to carry out such an agreement.

What the first round of Geneva II proved, if anything, is how complex the Syrian crisis has become.

The regime, while accepting to discuss each point in the Geneva I communiqué, was obviously not going to agree to the formation of a transitional body or government with full powers.

It reiterated, time and again, that the fate of President Bashar Assad was not an issue on any agenda.

So now what?

There are no guarantees that the second round of Geneva II will be any better.

In fact, the regime now wants a more inclusive opposition delegation and to move the talks to Damascus at a later stage.

There are a number of possible scenarios that present themselves.

One, the talks will continue but achieve nothing, while fighting on the ground intensifies.

In fact, the regime has amplified its attacks on Aleppo during and after the first round of talks, and appears to be making headway in some neighbourhoods.

Over 90 per cent of the population of Aleppo has been forced to leave the city following a destructive wave of explosive barrels that were dropped on the city in the past few days.

The fighting will also continue between so-called moderate Islamist fighters, in addition to the Free Syrian Army, and the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the east and northeast. The latter has been reclaiming areas it lost few weeks ago.

The internecine face off will not end anytime soon. It is depleting the resources of the anti-Assad opposition.

Second, the US and its allies will change their position and rearm the moderate opposition in order to put pressure on the Assad regime.

Regardless of what happens in Geneva, a new onslaught by the opposition will take place. This time the opposition will have superior weapons such anti-tank missiles but not the lethal Stingers to neutralise Assad’s air force.

This new round of fighting will be used to put pressure on Moscow and Tehran to convince Damascus to take the Geneva talks more seriously. It is meant to dampen the regime’s recent successes.

Third, the talks will collapse and fighting will go on unabated for few more months. This will confirm fears that Syria will remain divided and at war with the humanitarian crisis reaching unprecedented levels.

Only then may Washington and Moscow agree on a new political course. A ceasefire will be enforced but the status quo will linger on for some time.

Fourth, the US will use any violation by Damascus of the chemical weapons agreement to reactivate the military option.

It sounds far fetched now, but this remains a possibility in light of recent statements by US Secretary of State John Kerry calling for Syria’s immediate compliance with the agreement’s deadlines and reminding Damascus that all options remain on the table.

The only sure thing in all this is that Syria will soon present the biggest humanitarian challenge to the world community since World War II, which could easily become an unmanaged one.

Furthermore, the spillover of violence across borders will become a major threat to regional stability. This is already happening in Lebanon.

Without a solid US-Russian understanding on the need to implement Geneva I in its entirety, including the creation of a transitional government with full powers, negotiations will go nowhere.

But one immediate step that the two can force on parties is to achieve a temporary ceasefire, allowing for humanitarian relief, while talks continue.

The problem with US-Russian ties is that it goes beyond Syria, as we have seen in the case of Moscow’s harsh criticism of Western interference in the Ukraine.

Syria has become one of many crucial files on the table now.

For millions of hapless Syrians, the political process is no more than a zero-sum game, just like the military path.

After more than 130,000 documented deaths so far, there is little hope for a quick end to this ruthless conflict.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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