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Who to blame for Geneva II deadlock

Feb 02,2014 - Last updated at Feb 02,2014

The Syrian government and the opposition returned home from last week’s historic face-to-face peace talks in Geneva without a deal in hand and with little common ground, but some “results” of their wrangling are staggering: 500 missing, 1,900 dead and 10,0000 wounded.

Every hour Damascus and the Syrian National Coalition of the Opposition spent last week debating the fine print of Geneva I document and what makes a “terrorist”, a child’s life was cut short in Syria.

Yet those looking for a party to blame for the failure of Geneva II should not turn to the two parties who came to the talk kilometres apart, but to the very world powers that sat them down at the negotiation table.

From the very onset of the fragile talks, the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia undermined efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis at each and every turn, with bold announcements, diplomatic pressure and arms flow to rebel groups fuelling violence and driving the two sides further apart.

Even before the first session could open, the US began pushing the opposition to demand President Bashar Assad’s exit as a precondition — a position that put Damascus on the defensive and nearly led it to pull out of the talks on Friday.

After 11th hour mediation by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi saved the troubled talks, interference by various world powers ramped up in earnest.

In backroom sessions with opposition delegates in five-star hotels, Washington assured the coalition that if and when Geneva II should fail, the US would be set to push for UN Security Council action against the Syrian government.

Russia, meanwhile, continued to assure its long-time ally that Assad’s departure was not up for debate — in direct violation of Brahimi’s instructions for the two sides to discuss an interim government.

The diplomatic “couselling” left the delegations over-confident and at times combative, undermining Brahimi’s attempts to secure minor concessions on humanitarian issues, such as the release of 1,800 prisoners, in a bid to generate goodwill ahead of tackling more divisive political issues.

Even when they attempted to coax the two sides to reach a compromise, world powers often did far more harm than good.

By striking the only true breakthrough in the talks — an agreement by Damascus to allow the first 12-truck convoy into the besieged city of Homs for over a year — the US and Russia only highlighted the impotency of the UN and Arab League mediators.

As one opposition delegate put it, “everyone knows that the true decision makers are outside these walls”.

Yet the greatest damage by world powers, to doom the talks, was done hundreds of kilometres away from Geneva.

News reports of Washington’s alleged increase in arms supplies to the Free Syrian Army derailed the opening of talks on the formation of an interim government, led to the cancellation of a second session and left both sides bitterly polarised.

The revelation led Damascus to slam the US for “violating the spirit of Geneva II” and provided it with more ammunition to press for devoting the talks to tackling “terrorism” rather than a political settlement.

Despite being absent due to the UN snub, Iran’s presence was felt throughout the talks; its ongoing refusal to push the various Shiite militias and Hizbollah brigades it allegedly extends influence over to a ceasefire was a constant point of contention at the deliberations.

It is little wonder that the two partied departed Geneva with little agreement over the focus of the talks. How can two parties be expected to talk peace when half the world is driving them to war?

Despite the damage done by regional and international players, UN moderators publicly remained confident that the path to peace in Syria runs through Geneva, with led opposition negotiator Hadi Al Bahreh to claim that both sides are settling in for “at least six months” of negotiations.

Yet, with the second round of talks set in less than 10 days, signs are emerging that time to end the impasse, as well as delegates’ patience, is running short.

Shortly before departing for Damascus on Friday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem cast doubts over Damascus’ future participation in talks, referring to what he described as Washington’s  “blatant interference” in the proceedings.

SNC President Ahmed Al Jarba is set to rush off to Moscow this week to push Russia to pressure its long-time ally to enter talks over an interim government and agree to humanitarian-related concessions.

Opposition sources say the coalition is leaning towards boycotting the talks if it fails to get Moscow’s assurance that Damascus is ready to “play ball” in future proceedings.

Even if the international community succeeds in getting the two sides to return to building C at the UN’s Geneva headquarters next month, the past week showed that one great obstacle lies on the path to a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis: the international community itself.

Until world powers are ready to show through actions, and not just words, their willingness to end the bloodshed, no round of talks can save Syria from its fate: becoming a failed state.

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