Egypt waits as international players mull negotiated settlement in Syria

Dina Ezzat, Sunday 26 May 2013

US, Russian FMs are now mulling 'exactly what Egypt has consistently prescribed for Syria: a negotiated settlement,' says Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk during the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, in Kiruna, Sweden, Wednesday, May 15, 2013 (Photo: AP)

In Paris on Monday, US and Russian foreign ministers John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov are meeting to discuss the framework of a proposed meeting on Syria expected to soon take place in Geneva.

The planned meeting will be a follow-up to a meeting last summer that had called for a negotiated power transition from the government of Bashar Al-Assad to a representative government reflective of Syria's ethnic diversity and taking into account Syrian state institutions.

This is the sixth meeting between the two top diplomats. It is hoped that the meeting will succeed in setting the stage once and for all for a process aimed at reaching a settlement between the Syrian government and opposition, including the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

"We are keenly following this meeting and we are hopeful it will produce positive results that would start the process of a negotiated settlement, something that has always been prescribed by Egypt as a realistic remedy for the Syrian dilemma," said Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Nazih Naggary.

According to Naggary, the basis on which the first Geneva meeting (Geneva I) was formulated – and the concept that is currently being drafted for Geneva II, expected to convene later this month – is based on a negotiated settlement rather than a military solution, "which is taking a heavy toll on the lives of Syrians and... the stability of Syria and its immediate neighbours."

"There seems to be increased international awareness that a negotiated settlement is the road ahead if we want to see a transition of power in Syria without any further bloodshed," Naggary said. "It is obvious that the endgame of any negotiations is to achieve a transition that won't include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who seems no longer party to the future of Syria."

The Lavrov-Kerry meeting is convening only a few days after representatives of a core Arab group had issued a paper that offered moral support to the Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition began peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, but soon began espousing violent means to achieve its objectives.

The Arab League meeting, unlike recent Qatari attempts, did not call for stepped-up armaments to the armed opposition in hopes of seeing Al-Assad toppled by force.

It comes a few days before a scheduled Arab foreign ministers meeting on 5 June aimed at further examining the Syria crisis in advance of the Geneva II meeting.

"We recognise that there are demands by the opposition for further armaments, but we believe that a negotiated settlement is the way forward; and we are getting more and more support," Naggary said.

International deliberations on a negotiated settlement come against a backdrop of attempts by the UK to end an EU-imposed embargo on arms exports to Syria, a step recently described by the UK foreign minister as "a possible [means of] pressure towards a settlement."

Naggary said Egypt was aware that the full-fledged initiation of a negotiation process had yet to be launched, but stressed, "We hope we are getting closer to a serious start."

The Lavrov-Kerry meeting should, among other things, decide two key matters: Geneva II participants and the language to be adopted on the fate of Al-Assad.

A key issue for debate is the possible participation of Iran at the Geneva II meeting. Iran is serious about having a seat at Geneva, according to an Iranian diplomat who insisted that his country’s role "in relation to Syria cannot be overlooked."

This is not the position of some key Gulf players, especially Saudi Arabia, or of certaini key European players, especially France.

The language to be adopted on Al-Assad's fate, meanwhile, will be crucial – not just for the meeting's final communiqué, but also for its opening statement. The SNC has been firm in its demand that any negotiated settlement must include Al-Assad's exit from the political scene – a condition the official Syrian delegation has yet to approve.

A Damascus-based European diplomat said that Al-Assad "is not unaware that there is no room left for him there." He added that the Syrian president had already suggested to international interlocutors that he would not necessarily run in scheduled 2014 presidential elections.

"This was his way of saying 'I know I have to go'," said the diplomat.

Recently, however, Al-Assad has made statements suggesting that he would, in fact, run in next year's presidential race.

According to Naggary, the key matter now is to start the process of a negotiated settlement and then take it in a direction "that would allow for the aspirations of the Syrian people for change, democratic transition and prosperity for all Syrians."

A meeting taking place in Istanbul over the past three days has attempted to widen SNC representation at Geneva II to include other opposition groups and figures.

Naggary asserted that a key factor to the success of the process will be to ensure the fair and adequate representation of all Syrians and to preserve the integrity of state institutions to avoid destabilising the Syrian state. "We don't want to see a replay of the Iraqi scenario," Naggary said.

According to the foreign ministry spokesman, what is essential for Egypt at this point is the initiation of a negotiation process that would end the bloodshed in Syria and preserve Syrian territorial integrity. "Once we see the establishment of a transitional government composed of diverse elements of the opposition along with cadres of the Syrian state, we can say we're on the right track," he said.

Last August, Egypt had proposed and begun a four-way diplomatic initiative, along with key regional players Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The process, however, has not seen smooth sailing, due largely to political tensions between Tehran and Riyadh.

Naggary, however, insists that "consultations have been conducted between the concerned parties," along with other world capitals and players in Syria.

"We must move faster on all tracks, as we see the sparks of ethnic strife in Syria with a possible spill-over effect into Lebanon and Iraq," he warned. "It's very important that serious action is taken."

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