Geneva conference on Syria: A diplomatic victory for Moscow?

Bassem Aly, Tuesday 3 Jul 2012

Moscow appears to be the sole victor after talks on Syria in Geneva end with indications pro-Russia Assad regime will remain in power despite the exclusion of Iran

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, takes her seat next to British Foreign Minister William Hague, right, prior to a meeting of the Action Group for Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, June 30, 2012. (Photo: AP)

As talks on Syria in Geneva ended on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was "delighted" at the outcome of crisis talks because the signed agreement did not imply that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should step down.

This situation seemed to be most favourable for Moscow. Lavrov said the agreement did not attempt to impose a process on Syria that indicates an end to the ruling regime, a strong ally of Moscow.

The foreign ministers of the UN Security Council's five permanent members – Russia, the United States, China, France and the UK – all attended the Geneva talks along with Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League head Nabil El-Araby and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The deal stipulated the formation of a transitional government composed of members of Al-Assad's government and opposition figures in order to sort out the necessary arrangements for free elections.

However, Russia was capable of achieving a diplomatic triumph maintaining the existence of Al-Assad. It omitted text in a previous draft which explicitly said the plan would exclude from government anyone whose participation would undermine the transition's credibility and jeopardise stability and reconciliation.

According to Reuters, the United States and Russia contradicted each other over what that meant for Assad, as the text did not say Assad should step down and there were no preconditions excluding any group from the proposed national unity government.

Ibrahim Awaad, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, argued that the absence of an internationally-coherent and united vision towards Syria deepens the complexity of the country’s domestic conflict and allows for further brutal repression against pro-democracy protesters.

“I am concerned only about the civilian, innocent Syrians; conflicts between world powers intensify their humanitarian misery,” Awaad said.

Meanwhile, the US and the UK welcomed Russia's signing and acceptance of the transitional government plan. But they pointed out that no agreement had been reached concerning the question of arms sales to Syria and any future actions at the UN Security Council, including sanctions.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told a think-tank discussion last month in Washington: "We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on their way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

Ironically, in return, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of giving arms to the rebels. But Clinton refused to comment.

Lavrov's deputy, Gennady Gatilov, unveiled last Friday difficulties on creating international common ground on the 15-month domestic crisis in Syria.

"Our Western partners want to decide the outcome of the political process in Syria, but it is the job for the Syrians," Gatilov wrote on Twitter.

Ahead of the Geneva talks, Lavrov told media reporters that "clear differences" remained over international envoy Kofi Annan's plan to set up a national unity government in Syria after meeting with Clinton in Russia's second city, St Petersburg.

"I felt a change in Hillary Clinton's position. There were no ultimatums. Not a word was said that the document we will discuss in Geneva cannot be touched (changed)," he said.

The only failure for Russia was that it did not succeed on putting Iran on the guest list, as world powers refused its presence amid international disagreements with the Islamic Republic over its controversial nuclear activities.

Lavrov said on Tuesday that Iran should be invited to an international meeting on the Syria conflict in Geneva on Saturday.

"We believe it (Iran) has to be invited. It should certainly be done," Lavrov told reporters after the Russian president held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Lavrov said he would take part in the summit, but indicated that talks without Iran would be less productive.

"You have to use this chance," he said, adding that if Iran is not invited "then all those who can really influence all the main Syrian sides will not be present." He hinted that there is still a chance Iran might be invited.

Salam Al-Kawakbi, a Syrian researcher at the Arab Reform Initiative, said that the best solution for Syria’s domestic unrest would emerge from its socio-political forces which, without any foreign assistance, could restructure state institutions and pave the way for a new democracy based on respect of human rights and the will of the people.

“The Syrians alone can build Syria; no regional or international power can do something for the country,” Al-Kawakbi stated.

A wave of peaceful protests against Al-Assad's regime has turned into a year-long bloodbath and near civil war, with over 15,800 dead.

The military has responded with destructive assaults on opposition areas, using tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery to destroy neighbourhoods in various cities.

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