Geneva 2: Regime's Slippery Diplomatic Side-stepping

 Abdel Bari Atwan

 I am not alone, I think, in being surprised that negotiations at the Geneva 2 conference have continued despite the wide gap between the parties and the failure, to date, to reach agreement on a single point, either on the logisitics of humanitarian relief or the more complicated political issues.

It is clear that both the parties have adopted a strategy which sees them remaining in Geneva until the very last moment so as not to bear the consequences of the withdrawal before the international community.

The Syrian official delegation was pleased to be in the spotlight in Geneva where it has had ample opportunities to express its point of view to the world’s media and international political community. The opposition has afforded little competition, particularly the Syrian National Coalition.

The regime’s negotiating strategy is to focus almost entirely on ‘terrorism’ as the major threat facing Syria and its people; it realizes that this resonates with Western negotiators and media.

The opposition has kept its eye on the prize it seeks – the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers ‘by mutual consent’ and constantly re-iterates articles VI and VII of the Declaration of the (first) Geneva Conference, demanding that the regime sign up to it.

Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Moualem, has treated the SNC delegation with contempt and has not been party to the face-to-face sessions which are considered something of a triumph for Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s special envoy, who has been facilitating the talks. Moualem has left the direct dialogues to other, less important, members of the regime delegation as if to suggest the SNC do not have the same level of representation as the regime.

Lakhdar Brahimi has found himself in a very difficult situation, not only because the already wide gap appears to be growing, but because he made a mistake, in my opinion, in respect of the most complex and important political issue, namely the transfer of power.

The regime has intentionally frustrated the opposition by keeping the range of discussions firmly outside the framework of the Geneva first declaration. The regime’s apparent willingness to negotiate the terms for a ceasefire and delivery of humanitarian aid to the besieged Homs and other towns provided another avenue for the talks to go down and made the regime delegation appear reasonable.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the regime delegation came up with a document which it called ‘the basic elements for a communique’. This made no mention of the opposition’s key issues, namely ‘transition’ and ‘reform’ and did not use the word ‘President’ or ‘Presidency’ once as if to underscore that this is not negotiable.

Instead, the document began with a surprise – that a precondition for peace would be the restoration of ‘occupied territories’ to Syria, which can only mean the Golan Heights, clearly intending to drag Israel into the fray.

Next came an insistence that there should be no ‘foreign interference’ with what the document described as Syria’s existing ‘democracy’. Finally, it re-iterated that the biggest problem is ‘terrorism’ and asked foreign countries to stop arming and funding the ‘terrorists’.

The Syrian regime spokesmen emphasized at every available opportunity that they had not come to Geneva for the handover, that the Syrian people decide who rules Syria and President Bashar Al-Assad’s fate. The are their red lines, but the are ready to discuss anything else.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Geneva Conference 2, or the first round, has produced very little. The meetings that are expected to begin tomorrow are likely to pursue the same vicious circle.

The Syrian official delegation will return to Damascus with several glossy carrier bags from Geneva’s fashionable shops, full of joy because without having made a single political concession the international isolation of the Assad regime has been broked.

Meanwhile the opposition delegation will return to exile in the capitals that support it, and the anger of the multiple opposition factions on the ground in Syria, which feel it was a dishonour and a waste of time to sit with Assad’s representatives and negotiate with them in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the agenda of the two major powers behind this conference –  America and Russia – seek to form an alliance with the moderate opposition fronts to combat radical Islamic groups. This is possibly what the regime’s document was referring to when it rejected ‘foreign interference’ – it certainly didn’t mean Hezbollah and the Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a militia which have been fighting with the regime troops.

The most positive point we can draw from Geneva 2 is that the psychological barrier of the two sides meeting face to face has been broken but has it shortened the lifespan of the storm which is tearing Syria apart? Allah knows best.

It is to be hoped there will be a ‘next time’ in Geneva, and that it may produce more fruit.

Broader participation, in particular the involvement of Iran and representation from a wider range of the opposition factions on the ground, might improve the prospects for progress.

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