Geneva 2: Peace Conference or Hyde Park Corner Sunday Mayhem?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Geneva 2 conference on Syria began on Wednesday morning although to my eyes and ears, it appeared more like a Sunday morning at London’s famous Hyde Park corner where anybody can set up their soap box and talk at length, with extravagant gestures and tone, on whatever subject takes their fancy.

All eyes were on the two official Syrian delegations and their supporting national parties: America, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar stood with the official Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition delegation, and Russia with the representatives of the Assad regime.

We found the speech by Mr Walid Moallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, particularly remarkable in that – while adopting a defensive and aggressive tone – he focused on common-ground issues such as terrorism and the right of the Syrian people to determine their own future.  Moallem spoke at length about the jihadi groups – al-Qaeda in particular  – which are currently active in Syria, whose members come from all over the world via Jordan and Turkey.

Mr al-Jarba, head of the SNC, also spoke about the jihadist threat, in particular the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS) and submitted his credentials as Commander of the troops for ‘a Syrian awakening’ against the ‘terrorist’ element within the opposition.

Moallem’s strategy was intelligent, even if his speech was excessively long – in fact he was cut short by Ban Ki Moon. He focused on the fact that much of the opposition leadership was not based in Syria, whereas his delegation had come straight from Damascus and could therefore relate more credibly the situation on the ground. He also launched a fierce attack on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – who support the opposition – by questioning how these ‘underdeveloped’ countries  are qualified to give lessons in democracy, development and progress.

Moallem insisted that the opposition had been provided with weapons and had been recruiting mercenaries – there were, he said, 83 nationalities fighting to destabilize Syria at the present moment. Moallem claimed that the regime was in favour of coexistence  and was protecting minorities, particularly Christians, in the face of the ‘takfiri’ (Sunni sectarian extremists) who had kidnapped monks, destroyed churches, burned museums and desecrated tombs.

Mr Ahmad Al-jarba, Chairman of the Syrian National Coalition adopted a different strategy in his speech. Like Moallem, he talked about terrorism, but from the point of view – that of a defender of the state against the ISIS. Jarbe then moved on to insist that the purpose of the conference – whose agenda was set in Geneva 1 more than a year ago – was to establish a transitional government, which, he insisted, could not and should not include President Al-Assad. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, concurred.

Prince Al-Faisal unintentionally backed the Syrian regime’s case when he described the combatants in the civil war as being infiltrated by ‘strangers’ and demanded the departure of all foreign fighters from Syria. Although he meant Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, his formula also applies to the Islamist fighters which have been channeled into Syria with support and help from the Gulf and Turkey.

Despite the fiery exchange of words, it seems that little progress will be achieved at this conference, which moves to Geneva on Friday for more in depth talks. When both sides remain so fiery, and so unconvinced that a military victory is not still possible, a political solution seems very far away.

If we consider day one at Geneva 2 in terms of ‘profit and loss’, we would have to say, without hesitation, that the Syrian regime is the biggest winner. By being invited, and by actually attending, it has implicit UN recognition. Remember, the UN invited Iran to attend and then swiftly ‘dis-invited’ it just 24 hours later.

It is unlikely that Assad or any of his close colleagues, given the history and bloodshed of the past three years, would have dreamed of being given such a prominent place on the world stage, and such an information platform to put his point of view in front of the international community.

The Syrian regime’s delegation – obviously carefully chosen – included two women, underscoring the ‘backwardness’ of the Saudis, in particular, but also the (all male) Turks. We do not believe that the organizers of this Conference were aware of this point.

The Geneva Conference was a public relations exercise – or maybe war – in which rhetoric, and display, were all.

The occasion was exploited by the regime which won a great PR victory, but this does not mean that it is in any way right or justified. The real war, which is causing unending suffering to the innocent civilians of Syria, will go on until real, pragmatic and inclusive solutions are investigated.

As we said many months ago, there is no possibility of a political resolution to the Syrian file unless all major regional players – most importantly Iran – are involved.

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