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Geneva II: Gearing up to fail?

January 21, 2014 One day ahead of the Geneva II […]

21 January 2014

January 21, 2014

One day ahead of the Geneva II peace talks, participants and observers agree on one thing: the conference is overwhelmingly unlikely to produce a positive outcome. Syria Direct’s Alex Simon asks, why bother?

AMMAN: The Geneva II peace talks are set to commence Wednesday despite widespread pessimism regarding their chances for success, as Western powers that have shied away from military involvement seek to rein in the Syrian crisis via the long-shot diplomatic initiative.

Syria’s opposition-in-exile has reluctantly agreed to attend the long awaited peace conference, following months of uncertainty capped off with a week of frantic political maneuvering and low expectations.

“There is no benefit from Geneva II,” Syrian National Coalition (SNC) member Hisham Marwa told Syria Direct.

“Everyone believes that. Neither the Syrian regime nor its allies—the Russians and Iranians—are serious about any step for this country,” Marwa added.

The issue of Geneva has further strained the already fragile alliances within the SNC umbrella. More than a third of the group’s members boycotted Saturday’s vote on whether to attend the conference, and the Syrian National Council—one of the Coalition’s largest blocs—announced on Tuesday that it had withdrawn entirely from the Coalition in protest over group’s decision to attend Geneva.

Attitudes within Syria’s armed opposition often move beyond skepticism about the conference and into outright hostility, with Zahran Aloush—the military chief of the Islamic Front, a coalition of hardline Islamist groups that has emerged as arguably the most potent opposition faction inside Syria—going as far as to suggest that conference participants from both the regime and the opposition could be placed on a “wanted list” for targeting.

Geneva.jpgSyrians in the Idlib town of Kafr Nabl send a message to the opposition-in-exile.
Courtesy of Twitter user @syrianews.

The Coalition itself threatened to withdraw Sunday in response to the United Nations’ decision to invite Iran to the conference. The SNC has now stated it will attend following the UN’s decision to rescind Iran’s invitation, with a UN spokesman citing Tehran’s refusal to endorse the Geneva I Communiqué’s stated goal of forming a transitional governing body based on mutual consent.

Syrian government officials, for their part, have bluntly rejected the idea of forming a transitional government, insisting instead that Geneva should focus on “fighting terrorism.”

President Bashar al-Assad told AFP on Sunday that there was a “significant” chance he would seek another term as president, and derided the notion of sharing power with opposition figures as “totally unrealistic” and “a good joke.”

Ali Haidar, Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, was less than conciliatory in recent public remarks about the conference.

“Don’t expect anything from Geneva II,” Haidar said, speaking at a seminar in Damascus Thursday. “Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun, and will continue through the military triumph of the state.”

Despite this inauspicious backdrop, Western powers—Washington chief among them—have sustained their relentless campaign to ensure that Geneva, which has been delayed nearly eight months, takes place on January 22.

Analysts suggest that this insistence stems from the fact that Western leaders—who have shied away from providing substantial military support to Syrian rebels, insisting that the civil war can only be settled through diplomacy—feel compelled to take some sort of action to end the crisis, even if the prospects for success are slim.

“The situation in Syria is so intractable that [Western] leaders really feel the need to be seen as doing something,” explained Ambassador Frederic Hof, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and former State Department advisor on Syria.

“The something they’re doing right now is calling for a conference in Switzerland that they earnestly hope will produce good results,” Hof said. “But hope is not a plan.”

Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for the Stimson Center’s Middle East program, echoed Ambassador Hof’s sentiment. “I think they’re really motivated by a deep concern about the situation on the ground in Syria, and the sense that to not do anything is also not an option.”

The result, she warns, could well be a series of empty gestures that will diminish the credibility of the conference’s backers and participants. “I think it will end up being an exercise in checking the box—we came, we sat, we met. And, from my perspective, that doesn’t come anywhere near the threshold of what’s needed.”

SNC member Marwa, meanwhile, suggested that the Syrian opposition viewed Geneva as an opportunity to shed light on the regime’s true intentions.

“The Syrian National Coalition is going to Geneva II to show the world the regime’s lie that it will hand over authority,” said Marwa, originally from Outer Damascus and now based in Istanbul. “We will expose its lies to the international community.”

External pressure may also have played a role in pushing the SNC to Geneva.

Washington and its European allies have hinted that a refusal to participate in Geneva could jeopardize future support for the SNC. Reports have circulated that Turkey threatened to close its border to supplies and fighters transiting to northern Syria if the opposition does not attend the talks.

Prospects for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis further diminished on Tuesday, with the Syrian government facing fresh accusations of war crimes following the publication of a report by three former UN prosecutors documenting the systematic torture and killing of some 11,000 detainees while in state custody.

The document, which was leaked to The Guardian, is based on some 50,000 images that were smuggled out of Syria by a regime defector, and that show male corpses photographed in a military hospital, each with a serial number and many showing signs of torture.

President Obama himself alluded to the challenge posed by Geneva in a recent interview with The New Yorker. Regarding his diplomatic initiatives in Syria, Iran and Israel, he explained: “In all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”

Obama’s metaphor—which, deliberately or otherwise, evokes the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king doomed by the gods to eternally push a stone up a mountain, only to have it roll back down from the top—suggests not only that Geneva is a diplomatic Hail Mary, but also that there will be consequences in the event that the talks falter.

The Syrian National Coalition and its Western backers have long struggled with a legitimacy deficit inside Syria, and, if Geneva fails, their endorsement could destroy what scarce influence they retain on the ground.

“I think that if Geneva II collapses, that basically ends up reversing the momentum towards diplomacy,” said Yacoubian. “Those parties that invested themselves in a Geneva process would be further discredited.” 

SNC member Hisham Marwa said the Coalition expects few concessions from Assad and his delegation. Nevertheless, he remains one of a dwindling cadre of Syrian oppositionists prepared to suspend disbelief long enough to vote in favor of participation in Geneva.

“The regime is not coming to compromise,” he said. “Even if we bring the best negotiators, the conference will not achieve any goal.”

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