Syria Peace Conference: Who is really interested?

Nadeen Shaker , Sunday 26 May 2013

The US and Russia agree to back a peace conference aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. But what is to be expected from a conference where interests collide?

Syrian opposition chairman Sheikh Moaz Al-Khatib (left) congratulates the Coalition’s newly elected interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto (right), as other coalition members look on at the end of a long one-day election Monday night in Istanbul (Photo: AP)

Amid a flurry of meetings, it is still largely undecided whether an international peace conference aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria will take place in June.

The United States and Russia, the two powers spearheading the talks, aim to bring all sides involved in the conflict to the negotiating table, and flesh out an agreement dubbed “Geneva-2." However, looming questions over the real reasons behind the talks, the interests of the superpowers and the participation of both parties of the conflict could mar the talks from taking a natural course.

Who will get a seat at the table?

Backers of the parties in conflict are brokering meetings to get both sides to join the talks.

The Syrian opposition was invited to two landmark meetings towards the end of last week, in Amman and Istanbul. The Wednesday meeting in Amman, called for by Friends of Syria, a coalition of states supporting the opposition, served as a warning shot for Bashar Al-Assad to accept the bid to resolve the conflict. Speaking in the meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the United States boosting support to the opposition should Al-Assad reject a political solution to the conflict, Reuters reported.

Despite the warnings sounded, the regime only agreed to join the proposed June peace conference “in principle,” according to Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, leaving the opposition sceptical about its real position. The opposition said that it would like to receive a direct statement from the government in Damascus.

The Syrian regime had only days earlier fielded names of the delegation it wishes to send to the conference, which was criticised for not including heavyweight negotiators.

Meanwhile, the three-day talks in Istanbul focused on the opposition’s final decision on joining the conference. In the meeting, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) voiced its concern over having no guarantees that Al-Assad’s departure would be the end result of the conference, guarantees it hopes to extract particularly from the Russian side.

On the regime’s part, there are questions over who represents the Syrian opposition.

“The coalition is the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, despite there being disagreement over another opposition present inside Syria, which is working with the regime. The regime wants to put forward [those parties] as part of the opposition as well,” Ahmed Riad Ghannam, a member of the Syrian opposition, told Ahram Online.

“So the standing problem is: Who is the opposition?” he said. “Are they the ones being hunted down by the regime or are they the ones resisting internally under Bashar’s shadow, but who are stripped of powers to put him on trial?”

Wayne White of the Middle East Institute and former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East & South Asia Intelligence Office says that should an opposition delegation attend talks without asserting the demand for Al-Assad to leave, “a rift could appear between moderates and hardliners within the opposition leadership in exile, as well as between the opposition council and powerful militant Islamic rebel groups inside Syria.”

Generating friction and division within the rebel camp, he continued, could be a Russian objective.

Conflicting interests

The US and Russia each support opposite sides of the conflict: the US supports the opposition while Russia is a key backer of Al-Assad and continues to supply him with weapons under existing international arms contracts. Questions over why the two have united to broker these talks arise, prompting concerns over their interests in the region.

White argues that fears of a militant Islamic successor to the Syrian government, or a lengthier civil war during which militant elements emerge, rank highest for the Obama administration.

Russia, on the other hand, stands its grounds that it will not support the rebels under any circumstances, a position that it will most likely carry through during negotiations. Its interests include preserving its strategic ties with the regime and curbing militants feared to be fighting on the side of the rebels.

Experts, nonetheless, believe that the US has shifted its position more towards that of Russia.

"It's clear that the US has basically moved towards the Russian position on the Geneva communiqué, which is where we were nearly a year ago," Yezid Sayigh, Syria expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told Ahram Online.

The Geneva-1 meeting in June 2012 ended with an agreement to form a disputed transitional government and implement a truce. The deal left disagreement over the role of Al-Assad in the new government.

"Geneva-1 does not mean anything. There were issues with who would form the transitional government, and whether they would have the ministries of interior and defence under their jurisdiction,” Ghannam said. "If the transitional government does not have control over these ministries, the executive will [remain in command].”  

Sayigh argues that the willingness of the US to proceed with a framework it walked away from last year brings it closer to Russia's position today.

US real interests in that regard can be thought of as follows: waiting for the crisis to roll over in order to further its diplomacy with other regional countries including Iran, he adds.

“Syria is a sideshow for the US. It wants to be able to focus on diplomacy with Iran, and so it has an interest in reducing the salience of the Syrian crisis. This doesn't mean the US seriously expects to end the crisis, but that it has an interest in finding a way to limit, or even downgrade, its involvement there,” Sayigh says.

China, for one, has called on Iran to join the conference as a party that can influence talks. Other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar can have a role in how the conflict is played out as well.  

Pushing the regime, on the other hand, to enter negotiations will stem from international pressure over Al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

"Chemical weapons were discovered in polluted dust and the clothes of rebels. This way, Al-Assad will be pushed to negotiate because he has been caught red-handed. This has already caused the US and EU to move," Ghannam says.

What will happen if talks fail?

Failure to join talks will put blame on the opposition, which has come under increasing pressure by the international community to accept the bid.

“If it (the opposition) refuses to attend, it may lose the political recognition of the Friends of Syria and receive no further material assistance,” especially from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sayigh says. Consulting with these countries for influence in the SNC may leave the opposition “without clear, unified, and unconditional political support from either,” he argues.

The bottom-line for rebels on the ground is the departure of Al-Assad, a demand that has not yet been set as a precondition for talks. As matters stand now, according to blogger and Syrian activist Mulham Al-Jundi, the current demands tabled by the opposition do not “represent the Syrian street and people.”

The talks come at a time when infighting between the Al-Assad regime backed by Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Syrian rebels over the strategic town of Qusayr entered its seven day. The arms supplied to either side are used to fuel negotiations.

In the case that Bashar Al-Assad refuses to negotiate, the US will signal the green light for supporting countries to start sending aid to the rebels, the only means by which the regime can fall, Ghannam argues.

On the other hand, White says that Russia might be using the talks to “buy time,” and for the conflict to lapse in order to divert attention from the US and the Gulf’s increasing aid to the rebels.

But failing to reach a formula to end violence at the time of the conference will not change the equation, and each power — the US and Russia — will return to its previous position on the issue, White says. More so, neither side will come under criticism for providing aid to either party in the conflict, he continues.

"As long as there isn’t a balance of power — militarily — negotiations cannot take place. The regime does not want to resolve the conflict politically, and nor can the opposition accept talks under these conditions. Only a true balance of powers can push both sides towards negotiations," Ghannam says.

Al-Jundi, however, is of a different opinion. “The arms held by the rebels do not have a direct and immediate effect [on resolution of the conflict], but rather contribute to its extention; the best solution is finding a political solution to the conflict.”

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