5 min read  | Damascus, Interviews, Politics

Mona Yacoubian: Geneva likely to be ‘an exercise in checking the box’


January 15, 2014

Mona Yacoubian

January 15, 2014

The Geneva II peace talks are set to commence a week from today, and observers inside and outside the country see little cause for optimism. Syria’s political opposition remains deeply divided over whether to participate in the conference, as the Syrian National Coalition, one of the main blocs within the Syrian Opposition Coalition, has declared that it will not attend.

The international community is split over the issue of Iran’s attendance, with Washington opposing Tehran’s presence and Russia and the United Nations insisting that Iran must be a party to any settlement. Meanwhile, dynamics on the ground remain far removed from the diplomatic maneuvering, with the Islamic Front—a coalition of seven hardline Islamist factions, with an avowed disinterest in the Geneva talks—emerging as arguably the most potent opposition force within Syria.

“As soon as you invest in a diplomatic process, the costs of failure become very real,” says Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for the Stimson Center’s Middle East program in Washington DC. The stakes are high for the conference: Paving the way for a transitional body to govern Syria and stopping the fighting, principles the stakeholders cannot come to agreement on ahead of the conference.

It might fail, Yacoubian tells Syria Direct’s Alex Simon in this first of a two-part interview, and “those parties that invested themselves in a Geneva process would be further discredited.” Read part two of the interview here.

Q: What is your view on Geneva’s prospects for success?

I remain very, very skeptical that it will actually achieve anything. 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 diplomatically in order to put Syria on the right path.

Q: There seems to be very little optimism regarding the conference. Why are Washington and its partners continuing to push the conference so hard?

Because I think they continue to believe—and I would agree—that only a political settlement is going to bring about the end of hostilities in Syria. 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. So they’re focusing their sights very squarely on this idea of Geneva II, and I think that’s what’s driving the US and international actors and the UN as well.

Q: Could there be tangible consequences for holding the conference and seeing it fail?

I think that if Geneva II collapses—if there’s a real, undeniable failure—I think that’s very dangerous. I think that basically ends up reversing the momentum toward diplomacy, undermining the prospect that the parties can sit and talk and try to move the ball forward. As soon as you invest in a diplomatic process, the costs of failure become very real. As long as a diplomatic process is an ideal that you’re wishing for, the costs of failure are similarly abstract, but as soon as you invest in the process the costs of failure also become very real. So my concern is, there are only so many times that one can sort of take a bite of the apple. If it fails, we run the prospect of setting ourselves back significantly in terms of when we can bring the parties back again.

Q: Would these consequences be primarily in the diplomatic sphere, or could we see an impact on the ground?

I think it could have real repercussions on the ground, as well. Those parties that invested themselves in a Geneva process would be further discredited. I would caveat everything by saying that everything that happens on the ground in Syria has a dynamic of its own, and we should not kid ourselves that we’re able to control that dynamic. But I think without the prospect of any sort of diplomatic solution, there’s more of a sense that the violence on the ground will continue unabated. 

Q: To date, there has been no agreement on whether or not Iran will attend the conference. Can you give your take on what Washington’s position is, and how it will impact the talks?

As of today, the US remains staunchly opposed to Iran’s participation in Geneva II unless Iran endorses the Geneva Communiqué and the key principle that the purpose of the conference is to create a transitional governing body with full executive power, formed by mutual consent between the Syrian government and the opposition. While this principled position certainly accords with the spirit of Geneva, the US and Russia have maintained a purposeful ambiguity about the role of President Assad—precisely because the US and Russia could not come to full agreement on a transition’s details.

With the opposition already at a disadvantage, the US strategy likely hinges on attempting to shape the conference so that it moves the agenda on transition forward. Unfortunately, I continue to believe that not including Iran entails more downsides than potential benefits. While Iran remains a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, Tehran has signaled its displeasure over the regime’s behavior, particularly its use of chemical weapons, and also the humanitarian catastrophe that has developed as a result of the regime’s policies.

As such, Iran, together with Russia, could leverage its influence to seek concessions on the key issue of humanitarian access.  Iran is also concerned by the growth of jihadist influence inside Syria, and might be more forthcoming on other issues if it calculates that Assad has become more of a liability than an asset.  Finally, if Iran is not included, it could act as a powerful and effective spoiler.

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