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The Syrian crisis: Between Kuwait and Geneva 2

To what extent can the Geneva 2 conference help the Syrian cause and end Syrians' misery?

Said Shehata , Monday 20 Jan 2014
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The hopes of the Syrians are decided in capitals outside Damascus, such as Kuwait and Geneva.

The main hope of the Syrian people is to end the bloody violence in their country. This violence has led to the killing of more than 100,000 people and to the displacement of millions, both inside Syria and as refugees in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.

There are efforts on the humanitarian and political fronts to end the misery of the Syrians. Kuwait hosted the second donor conference for humanitarian aid to Syrians on 15 January 2012. Sixty-two countries were represented and it was chaired by the prince of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, and Ban Ki Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations. The prince of Kuwait pledged $500 million while a total of $2.4 billion dollars were pledged by participating countries. Kuwait led by example, according to Ban, but the UN head also warned that a total of $6.5 billion would be needed during 2014 to provide the required humanitarian aid to Syrians.

There has been huge support to help Syrians from different countries and international organisations. I noticed the genuine motivation of the participants through interviewing several governmental and international organisation representatives. For example, Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, told me: “the Syrians opened their houses to the Lebanese people before and we are now returning the favour by hosting them.” He added that the Syrian refugees account for 25 percent of the population of Lebanon, and Lebanon faces a daunting task to help them. There are problems within Syrian refugee communities such as unemployment and early marriage. The prime minister ended our interview by calling for the international community to support Lebanon to help the Syrians it is hosting.

The same sentiment was expressed by Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, who told me that Egypt is doing what it can do to help the 300,000 plus Syrians in Egypt. Egypt has opened its schools and hospitals to them despite the economic problems the country faces.

While the conference and the generosity of pledging aid by Kuwait and others shown during it give some hope, the Syrian crisis is deeper than just writing a cheque, according to John Kerry, the American secretary of state, in his conference speech. While humanitarian assistance is important, it is not enough to end the increasing scale of violence that has affected Syrians everywhere in Syria and abroad.

In this context, I talked to some Syrian refugees in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and they told me that they face difficulties in the hosting countries and they still have families in Syria under constant fear and fire. Moreover, international organisations face problems in providing aid inside Syria. Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told me in an interview during the Kuwait conference that: “we face problems in reaching some areas and during my visits to Syria I urged all concerned parties, government and opposition, to open the door for humanitarian aid to reach the needy people.”

Syria announced that it allowed aid to reach the besieged Al-Yarmouk camp for the first time in months.

Syrians die every day and humanitarian aid eases the situation but cannot end the crisis. Therefore there is an urgent and persistent need to end the violence through a political solution and diplomacy, according to Ban Ki Moon and John Kerry. They expressed during the Kuwait conference the importance of ending violence through diplomacy and Geneva 2, a much anticipated meeting of key parties.

The hopes of Syrians were satisfied to a certain extent through the successful results of the Kuwait conference, but to what extent can Geneva 2 help their cause and be the first step to end their misery?

While some commentators and politician have their hopes high with regard to Geneva 2, which will be held on 22 January, there are many concerns about this conference. Those concerns could predict the failure of this meeting before it starts.

First, there is a deep division inside the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Only 58 members out of the 120 members of the SNC voted in favour of taking part in Geneva 2. More than 40 of its members did not attend the latest 2 days meeting to discuss the participation in Geneva 2. So, it will be a big pressure on Ahmad Al-Jarba, its chairman, to show that he will not let down the Syrians. This division could make him less flexible in negotiating with the Syrian regime. Al-Jarba might fall into this trap, and this will negatively affect the way he deals with Geneva 2.

The political opposition might forget or might not know that negotiation without power to support it could weaken its position during the negotiation. The political opposition is divided and on the ground it has the support of the Free Syrian Army but not other militant factions, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Nousra Front. It can be said that the opposition is in a weak position. However the support of the United States, Britain, France and the UN could change this picture during Geneva 2.

Second, the role of Russia is vital. It is the strongest ally of the Syrian regime. Without pressure from Russia on President Al-Assad, nothing will change in the near future and the cycle of violence will last longer. Russia is against the departure of Al-Assad as a pre-condition to Geneva 2, which is the same line taken by the Syrian regime.

Third, while Al-Assad is part of the current violent situation in Syria, his role in the transitional period is a matter of controversy. While the opposition, the US, Britain and France call for his removal, there is no concrete alternative presented or a road map to replace him.

In addition, Walid Al-Moalem, the Syrian foreign minister, refused this condition or any other conditions before Geneva 2.  Al-Jarba will be under immense pressure to demand the departure of Al-Assad during the meeting, otherwise he might walk away from negotiation.

Fourth, the increasing power of the radical Islamists, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, poses a threat to Syrians as well as the western countries. Those militant groups control part of the Syrian territory. Their presence is a main factor for the hesitant approach of the West to take decisive actions towards the Syrian regime. The West fears that the disappearance of President Al-Assad, without alternatives in place, might complicate things in Syria. The sectarian war between different components of the Syrian community reminds the West of what has taken place in Iraq. While several statements by John Kerry and others have been made about the departure of Al-Assad, there is no vision for the future of Syria, especially with the increasing power of the radical Islamists.

Fifth, the situation on the ground does not show any winner or stronger actor in the current violence in Syria. Neither the regime nor the militant opposition can claim that it has the upper hand on the battleground. The Syrian territories are divided between the forces of both the regime and the opposition. This undecided war compounds the misery of Syrians, whether inside the country or outside.

Finally, it can be argued that Geneva 2 is constrained by several factors which will likely contribute to its failure before it begins. The Syrians do not deserve what they have been going though and Syria is the victim of destruction. All parties have a role to play to end this crisis, especially, the Syrian regime, Syrian opposition, and both the US and Russia. Geneva 2 does not seem to be the answer.

 

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