Syria: The Road to Geneva – and back again
The suspense over the holding of the Geneva II Conference on Syria appeared to have finally ended on 18 January with the decision of the principal opposition group – the Syrian National Coalition (SNCo) – to attend, but has now re-emerged with their threat to withdraw over the extension of an invitation to Iran.
However I don’t think there is as much uncertainty as is widely thought. The UN has already taken out insurance by inviting a wide range of states to participate – a total of 32 – effectively turning it into an international conference on Syria, rather than a purely bilateral peace negotiation, and virtually ensuring that some sort of international deliberation on Syria will commence on 22 January.(The first day will involve all the participating delegations in preliminary discussions, with bilateral negotiations mediated by Brahimi starting on the 24th).
Moreover the US and the “Friends of Syria” are putting intense pressure on the SNCo to attend, while at the same time Russia has been doing its best to woo them,given the limitations imposed by its betrothal to the Asad regime. The hesitations of the SNCO are conditioned more by its need to reassure various forces back home than expressing any real uncertainty about its eventual participation.
So what are the intentions of the main players at Geneva II and what, if anything can we expect to emerge from it.? And how should the international movement of Solidarity with the Syrian revolution be responding?
The Godfathers – the US and Russia
The United States and Russia share a common concern to avoid instability in a complex and inter-twined region and to contain the development of international “terrorist” forces. The US’s parochial obsession with any whiff of “al-Qaeda” (9/11 casts a long and deep shadow) has prevented it from adopting a consistent strategy towards the Syrian conflict and limited its support for the anti-Asad forces to either tokenistic light weaponry or indirect assistance via partners such as Saudi Arabia. Russia, of course, has the additional motivation of wanting to support an historic ally that plays an important role in providing it with influence in an important geo-strategic region and counter-balancing US global hegemony.
What this means is that both the US and Russia have a real interest in seeing Geneva II produce some kind of negotiated resolution of the conflict, and both are more concerned with regional order and stability than with meeting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.
The Syrian regime has been pressured into this process by its Russian patrons. Throughout the course of the conflict the regime has repeatedly insisted that it will not negotiate with “terrorists” – and since it has labelled anyone who actively opposes it as a “terrorist” that has meant a refusal to negotiate with anyone except itself. It entered into the Geneva process in the hope that the opposition would refuse to participate, allowing it to present a charade of openness to peace-making while not actually having to give any ground. To try and ensure that outcome it launched a provocative intensification in the bombardment of opposition areas on the eve of a mooted peace process.
The regime’s prime tactic for the Conference is to try and refocus discussion on the issue of “combatting terrorism” rather than its own repressive record and the demands for real political change. This is an operation which may play well with some of the participants in the opening round, but is going to quickly run out of steam once serious, bi-lateral negotiations begin on 24 January.
The delegation appointed by Asad reflects this approach. It is headed by a regime hard-liner – the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem who, along with his deputy Faisal Mikdad, has been making public pronouncements insisting that Asad will be standing for re-election in 2014. To further ensure that loyalty to the President is not overlooked in these proceedings, Asad’s notorious “Political and Media Advisor” Bouthaina Shabaan, is named as a “Deputy Head”of the delegation. The remainder are a combination of foreign ministry officials and spin doctors, with no one included who might be able to contribute to practical peace-making arrangements.
On top of that, they have hedged their bets in several ways. Muallem has sent a letter to the UN General Secretary in which he expresses reservations about the Geneva framework; and he has emphasized that anything agreed at Geneva would be subject to a referendum (presided over by the regime and its security apparatuses – whose outcome would therefore be of their choosing).
The Ghost of Geneva I
In order to understand the possible dynamic of any Geneva II negotiations we need to remind ourselves of the content of the June 2012 Geneva Communique on which they are based. This calls for:
The establishment of a transitional governing body which ... would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.…The public services must be preserved or restored. This includes the military forces and security services.All parties must cooperate with the transitional governing body in ensuring the permanent cessation of violence. This includes completion of withdrawals and addressing the issue of the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups. (my emphasis)
This insistence on maintaining core regime institutions is based on supposed lessons drawn from the US occupation of Iraq, where the occupation authorities’ sweeping dismissal of Baathist military and state personnel led to political chaos and insurgency. However it is based on false reasoning, since the structure of power in a Syria in the midst of an hypothetical “negotiated transition” would be totally different to that of Iraq in the wake of a sweeping military defeat.What this formula envisages is essentially a “Zimbabwe” solution: one in which an authoritarian regime and a democratic opposition are welded together without any modification of the underlying institutional power structures. The outcome is entirely predictable: the opposition gets an upgrade in desks and limousines; the regime gets to hang on to power.
Such an approach to the Syrian situation, far from facilitating a peaceful transition, is a piece of nonsense that guarantees the failure of Geneva II under even the most optimistic scenario.
Diplomats in Wonderland
Let’s just try and envisage for a moment how it would play out in practice. Coming out of Geneva there would be a new government drawn at best 50% from the regime, 50% from the opposition. With the Syrian Arab Army being kept in place, that would mean the Ministry of Defence going to a regime General. Perhaps it would be balanced by the Ministry of the Interior going to the opposition – with “full executive power” over Syria’s four separate intelligence agencies and 85 000 secret policemen? But as life-time Asad loyalists these professional torturers are not going to take orders from just anyone: they will create their own chain of command –to the president if Asad is left in office; to the nearest Baathist minister if he is not. The result would be an administration split down the middle on political lines, with a Baathist faction having at its disposal the repressive machinery of the state, the remnants of the Baath Party, and associated government officials; meanwhile the opposition would be reduced to waving about bits of paper proclaiming their “full executive authority”. And in the midst of all this someone will be rushing around trying to persuade the armed opposition to surrender their weapons. With Iraq in mind, one is reminded of Marx’s aphorism that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” – except in this case it would be both tragedy and farce.
This demonstrates why the question of removing Asad from the picture is so crucial – it’s not a matter of personalities or moral condemnation, but of realistic power politics: Asad in office means the regime in power, whatever the bits of paper may say.
While this package sounds very disturbing, in reality we can relax a bit – it is so full of contradictions and absurdities that it has no hope of getting off the ground. But that still leaves two big questions – how quickly will it fall apart? And who is going to be hardest hit by the fall- out when it does come crashing down?
There could be opportunities here for a cohesive opposition with skilled negotiators. The process of negotiation has its own logic, and it should be possible to exploit this Mad Hatters Tea party to win some breathing space for the Syrian people, by insisting on easing the sieges, stopping bombardments of civilian areas, and releasing detainees as essential confidence-building measures before serious talk can begin. It would be hard for the regime and its patrons to dismiss such demands out of hand without losing all credibility – and this under the intense gaze of 30+ diplomatic missions and the world press.
However the Syrian National Coalition is neither politically skilled nor cohesive, (although one interesting development in the opposition camp has been the emergence of a group of Syrian Women who seem to have a clearer focus and greater cohesion. While they are peripheral to the main process they seem to have the ear of Brahimi and may be able to have some impact even from the fringes.)
Role of the Solidarity Movement.
How then should the international solidarity movement be responding to this situation? I think the first objective should be to focus attention on the issues I have referred to above: the sieges and bombardment of opposition areas, and release of detainees. We should be highlighting voices from within Syria who are raising these demands; If this can be synchronised with some Syrian voices at Geneva so much the better.
The second objective is to prepare for the collapse of Geneva II: this is going to be followed by a tidal wave of spin from the regime and its patrons, who will try and place the blame on the opposition – both those at Geneva and those waging the struggle back home. The regime is going to try and emerge from Geneva smelling of roses; we need to ensure that it comes out smelling of the dung heap of repression.