Can the Geneva II peace conference succeed?

Bassem Aly, Saturday 25 Jan 2014

The prospects of reaching a peace deal between the Syrian regime and opposition remain fraught as negotiations hone in on core issues at Geneva II Saturday

Geneva II
Bashar Ja'afari, center, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, arrives with a delegation to meet with United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Syria's three-year-long civil war has carried heavy regional implications. The number of players, regionally and internationally, involved in the Syria question has made it even tougher to produce peace amid the considerable conflict of interests among them.

On Saturday, government and opposition representatives will meet during for the first day of peace negotiations proper in Geneva, but with little hope of real progress. A first Geneva conference led to a vague outcome that left the civil war in place. Could Geneva II be different? While not impossible, it is difficult to be optimistic.

Geneva I

The Geneva I peace conference, held in July 2012, produced a deal stipulating the formation of a transitional government composed of members of Bashar Al-Assad's regime and opposition figures, in order to make the necessary arrangements for free elections.

At the time, Russia, an ally of Assad's regime, was deemed "delighted" by the outcome, in the words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov said the agreement did not attempt to impose a process on Syria, ending the ruling regime — a strong ally of Moscow.

Russia had refused a formulation in draft agreement that explicitly said the plan would exclude from government anyone whose participation would undermine the transition's credibility and jeopardise stability and reconciliation.

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

Meanwhile, Russia did not succeed in putting Iran on the guest list for ongoing discussions on Syria, as world powers refused its presence amid international disagreements with the Islamic Republic over its controversial nuclear activities.

Ironically, the same exclusion of Iran occurred again in 2014, for UN chief Ban Ki-moon reversed a last-minute invitation when the opposition said it would boycott Geneva II if Tehran participated.

Shia Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah have backed Al-Assad, while the mainly Sunni Gulf states have supported the opposition. This fact explains the enmity.

Back to Geneva II

The kick off last Wednesday was not promising at all. About 40 states and international groups gathered in Switzerland's Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The opening speeches witnessed aggressive statements, especially that of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, dubbing the opposition "traitors" and foreign agents.  

Alternatively, Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), called on the regime to "immediately" sign the deal reached at the last peace conference in Geneva, setting out "the transfer of powers from Al-Assad, including for the army and security, to a transition government."

He said the creation of a transition government would be "the preamble to Bashar Al-Assad's resignation and his trial alongside all the criminals of his regime."

While US Secretary of State John Kerry backed the opposition's stance, Lavrov warned that talks will neither be quick nor simple.

The biggest blow came Friday. Syrian state television reported Friday that Muallem told UN-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that the regime would quit talks in Geneva if "serious sessions fail to take place" Saturday.

Muallem had accused the opposition of being neither serious nor prepared for negotiations.

Can progress be made?

"The negotiations will not end quickly; it will take time. Further common ground reduces the time span, and this was what happened with the late chemical weapons crisis," Muhammad Sarmini, member of the SNC, told Ahram Online on Friday.

Sarmini stated that some "Russian signs" indicated Moscow's acceptance of Al-Assad's removal.

"This will appear more by virtue of time," he said, adding that the matter enjoys worldwide approval, especially in the Friends of Syria group — an anti-Assad alliance of mainly Western and Gulf countries.

Sarmini noted that the opposition calls in Geneva for a ceasefire, allowing entrance of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, along the establishment of a transitional ruling body with "full authorities."

According to AFP, Brahimi appeared confident no one would immediately quit the talks, insisting that "both parties are going to be here tomorrow and they will be meeting." He said that core issues have not been discussed as yet.

The ex-Algerian foreign minister pointed that both Syrian parties claim different interpretations of the Geneva I deal, and hoped that Geneva II would bring clarity to this issue.

The opposition believes it requires the departure of Al-Assad. The regime feels differently.

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