By Oliver Tang
A conflict that has cost more than 130,000 lives, as estimated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian civil war is a tragedy whose devastation and magnitude we, in the relative safety of America, cannot even come close to grasping (1). Yet, Geneva II, a proposed and recently ratified, UN-backed convention may provide the world with the first real hope of the Syrian government seeing eye to eye with the opposition. What negotiations are emerging now, after nearly three years of instability? What should we expect from such talks? And moreover, what is Iran’s role in the picture?
The convention has been in the works since 2012, since former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s “Geneva I” back in 2012. The former Secretary General and then-UN peace envoy to Syria gathered an action committee which was (miraculously) approved and attended by all 5 permanent members of the Security Council in June (2). A month later, Annan’s successor, Algerian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed another action plan: an international conference with a focus on US-Russian and Syrian government-opposition cooperation. The end result of the plan is the Geneva II conference, scheduled to start on January 22nd, 2014. So far, the involvement of the Syrian opposition, along with the four international organizations and 40+ counties involved, has gone without any significant kinks. The United States and Syrian Ambassador Robert Ford have been preparing the Syrian opposition for the meeting, including developing a “shared political platform” so that the twenty-five members of varying rebel coalitions can avoid internal conflict when the time comes (3). The Syrian government’s involvement has also come surprisingly easily, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem approving the country’s involvement in a letter that was leaked about a week before the convention’s start (4), With all the important parties ready, unless we see a huge change in the picture, we can expect talks to begin on January 22nd.
But most importantly, what can we expect from Geneva II? The council is proceeding under a set of guidelines called the “Geneva Communique” intended to ensure Syria’s “sovereignty, independence, and national unity” with a 6-step program. This program is targeting, among many things, a cessation to the instability in the country and the transition/establishment of an operating, transnational government (5). This framework is lovely, but there have been fundamentally different goals within the delegates already. While the majority of the world obviously aims to end the conflict between government and the opposition, the Syrian government has stated that its main goal and “the priority for the Syrian people” is to “continue to fight terrorism” (4). Even on the negotiating table, the Syrian government still turns to terrorism as its scapegoat for the violence that has plagued the country for 3 years; this belief will have to be addressed before we can expect tangible progress. Additionally, not all the Syrian opposition is on board with the idea. An Islamist alliance called the Syrian National Council, which comprises a large portion of the rebel groups, has refused to involve itself in negotiations, making a breakthrough even less likely (6). The rebels willing to cooperate have additionally insisted that they are only willing to see “security and military leaders…whose hands are not stained with the blood of the Syrian people”, a condition that may be extremely hard to fulfill (7). The most ominous sign of things to come can be seen in the centerpiece of the whole affair, Bashar al-Assad. The man perpetuating the beliefs that terrorism is the root of Syria’s problem has also stated that he has “no intention of quitting”. He has full plans to run for election in mid-2014 (8). The fallen-from-grace leader has additionally attempted to secure and consolidate his power, with refusals to make opposition figures leaders within his government (9). Additionally, soon we will have to address the nearly irreparable damage done to the country, something that talks at the table (and potentially even the appointment of a new government) will not solve. A stable government requires the foundations of a stable country, and that has yet to be secured. Yet, there still lies a glimmer of hope in the situation. We should first and foremost bear in mind that this is the closest we have ever come to both domestic and international cooperation to address the Syrian civil war. This can be clearly demonstrated when we look to Washington and Moscow. Starting with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s letter to America back in September, the cooperation between America and Russia has set the stage for talks to happen in the first place, something we never thought we’d be saying (10).
Another factor of the negotiation process is Iran, another player in the negotiation game. The recovering nuclear pariah has been hit with accusations of providing “fighters, intelligence, and communications to support al-Assad”; alleged involvement of the Iranian-backed Shiite organization Hezbollah in the conflict does not do wonders for Iran’s innocence (11). The United States and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, who played a heavy role in P5+1 Iranian nuclear negotiations, aren’t exactly comfortable with the country getting involved in negotiations yet, with Kerry personally lobbying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and threatening to pull Washington out if Iran takes a seat the conference table (12). The Syrian opposition coalition has been just as welcoming, with one member resolutely proclaiming, “We cannot attend if Iran is there. The coalition is united on this one point” (12). Despite Iran’s allegations that it had no interest in getting involved in the meeting should it get tied down in “unnecessary preconditions”, the UN saved the meeting the trouble and eventually revoked Iran’s invitation. However, Ban Ki-Moon still stands behind Iran’s involvement in negotiations, saying, “I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution” and that the country would bring “positive and constructive” talk to the table (13). On one side, maybe it is for the best that Iran, a country whose decision to cooperate still remains ambiguous, to stay out of the meeting, at least for now. However, with Iran also being a major party in perpetuating the violence, we shouldn’t have too high expectations while the country remains denied from the table. Washington isn’t blameless either: threats to completely rescind Washington aren’t a good sign of progress either.
Geneva II has its merits. It has its flaws. It bears hope. And it bears apprehension. At this point, the only thing we can agree upon (and arguably be proud of) is that this is a record level of international cooperation to address a conflict that has been allowed to fester for far too long. Will the world cooperate in face of negotiations? Will both sides of Syria turn against each other at the table? Will al-Assad submit to pressures from the West or invariably derail negotiations? What does Syria have in store from Geneva II? What does the world have in Store from Geneva II? What groundbreaking peace deal will we be covering next month? Only the future can tell.
This article was written before the Geneva Talks began. The Geneva talks were largely inconclusive, but perhaps some progress will result when the talk resume on February 10th.