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The US ‘has learned nothing from Bush-era debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan’

Jan 29,2014 - Last updated at Jan 29,2014

The US-Russian sponsored Syrian peace process, dubbed “Geneva II”, has, for a week now, been in its Geneva phase, involving mediated talks between the government and expatriate opposition.

The first phase consisted of a one-day gathering in Montreux of foreign ministers from 40 countries, including Jordan, as well as representatives from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the Vatican.

This conference was meant to set the scene for the government delegation and representatives of the expatriate opposition National Coalition to engage in constructive negotiations.

However, the atmosphere was soured in the days ahead of Montreux by three developments.

The first was the carefully timed publication of a report that alleges the torture and killing of 11,000 Syrian political prisoners.

Commissioned by Qatar, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s archenemy, the report was based on photographs said to have been taken by a police photographer who defected and fled Syria.

The second was the withdrawal of the invitation to Iran, the Syrian government’s main regional ally, issued by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, at the insistence of the US, its allies, and the coalition, which said it would boycott the talks if Iran took part in the Montreux meeting.

They argued that Tehran could not participate because it refused to sign onto the Geneva declaration issued on June 30, 2012, at the conclusion of the first Geneva conference (“Geneva I”) that not only proposed an end to the conflict but also the creation of a transitional authority that could effect the shift from Baath Party rule to a democratic system.

Russia, Ban and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi held that Iran is a key ally of the regime and a major player on the regional stage and should be involved.

Iran’s exclusion was a blow to the integrity of the peace process (Geneva II) because Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the regional powers fostering, funding and arming anti-government insurgents, were honoured guests at Montreux.

Finally, the attendance at the Montreux gathering was expected to be 35 countries and organisations, but in the week before the conference met, 10 mainly anti-government states signed up.

This left the government delegation feeling isolated, besieged and on the defensive, prompting Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem to speak three times longer than his 10-minute slot allowed and Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari to hold an hour-long press conference at the end of the Montreux phase.

In his opening salvo at Montreux, US Secretary of State John Kerry roundly denounced the government and called for the ouster of Assad, instead of encouraging the opposing delegations to sit down and negotiate constructively.

He was followed by European, Canadian, Australian, Qatari and Saudi speakers who also adopted adversarial approaches to the government, encouraging the opposition to adopt similar positions and creating a toxic atmosphere that led to confrontation.

The climate was so adversarial that Brahimi was unable to get the two sides into the same room until Saturday.

He was also forced to follow up morning joint sessions with separate afternoon talks, which, he said, were productive.

The US and its allies, apparently, adopted an unremittingly hostile stance towards the government with the objectives of prompting it to walk out in a rage, thereby suffering blame for failure of Geneva II, or forcing Damascus to yield on its veto on the role and composition of the transitional authority.

So far, neither of these objectives has been achieved.

A third objective of the US and its partners is to promote the coalition delegation attending the talks as the only group empowered to speak for opponents of the government.

This is, however, a very hard sell because the coalition is composed mainly of expatriates, many of whom have not lived in Syria for decades and have no credibility in the country.

Furthermore, one-third of coalition members walked out of a pre-Montreux meeting in Istanbul when the coalition president, Ahmed Jarba, secured a two-thirds vote in favour of attending, while rebel groups and radical jihadists fighting in Syria denounced anyone who participates in the conference as “traitors”.

Consequently, the coalition is not representative of Syrians living at home or in a position to deliver insurgents who do not belong to its weak and loosely linked military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), when agreements are reached for evacuations of civilians, permitting the entry of food and medicines into areas they control, or imposing local ceasefires.

By placing all their eggs in the coalition basket, the US and its allies are making a major miscalculation.

There are opposition groups based in Syria itself that enjoy some internal support and could lend credibility to the talks. They include the National Coordination Board, headed by Hassan Abdel Azim, and the Kurdish Democratic Union, which controls a swathe of territory in the far northeast and has proclaimed autonomy there.

Both groups, which were prepared to attend as independent entities, refused to sit on a delegation dominated by the coalition.

The US has also dispatched a team to advise the coalition.

The team includes hardline ambassador Robert Ford who openly advocated the anti-government cause while he was accredited to represent Washington in Damascus.

Indeed, he encouraged critics of the government to protest, risking their lives and helping usher in a deadly and destructive civil war that is destroying Syria and threatening to destabilise the entire region.

In recent months, Washington appeared to step back from the fractured and fractious coalition, but Kerry has now made clear that it has the full backing of the US.

During his press conference at the end of the Montreux meeting, he said the US would be stepping up aid to the opposition.

So far, Washington has resumed supplies of “non-lethal” assistance to the FSA and, it was revealed on Tuesday, Congress has secretly authorised the provision of light arms and anti-tank weapons to this loosely linked collection of “moderate” militias.

Furthermore, Kerry said President Barack Obama has not taken the military option off the table.

This option was placed on the table when Obama, 18 months ago, threatened strikes on Syria if it used chemical weapons in the conflict and was nearly used in September last year when the nerve gas sarin was deployed in rebel-held districts to the west and east of Damascus.

Kerry’s comment about the status of the military option shows that the Obama administration has learned nothing from Bush-era debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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