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Case Analysis 16 February, 2014

Geneva II: In the Run-Up to Round II, what did Round I Achieve?[1]


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Following nine days of talks, the first round of the Geneva II conference ended with little progress toward solving Syria’s political crisis. On February 10, 2014, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi announced a new round of negotiations. The first round prompted all to assess and question what had been achieved, and whether the opposition’s decision to take part had been effective. After the first round, one must consider whether the regime took advantage of the conference to escalate on the ground, and whether Russia’s  position has shifted, particularly after they hosted the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in Moscow on February 4, 2014.

A Low Ceiling of Expectations

Given the polarization between the Syrian regime and the opposition, none of the parties in attendance were under any illusions regarding what could be achieved during the first round. With Geneva I as the basis for these negotiations, the UN and the other sponsor states would have been content to bring the two sides together; the conflicting parties, however, were more focused on making media and diplomatic gains, making a breakthrough on political or humanitarian fronts virtually impossible.

The Regime’s Position

Before the conference started, the Syrian regime announced reservations over the official invitation’s content, claiming that it did not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people, calling instead for a focus on the “fight against terrorism.” The regime was also unenthusiastic about forming a transitional governing body capable of exercising full powers, a stated objective during the conference. It seems that the regime’s prior embrace of Geneva I, and its agreement to attend Geneva II, was to spare embarrassment to its Russian ally and to paint the opposition and its backers as an obstacle to a political settlement. Once the conference was set, the regime worked to derail it by exploiting not only Russia’s backing, but also the regime’s improved situation on the ground, and Iran’s refusal to accept the Geneva I communiqué. They also took advantage of the agreement to maintain a separation between what is happening on the ground and what is happening at the conference.

The regime continued to bombard Aleppo, attempting to advance on the city, taking advantage of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) withdrawal from some fronts. The regime also sought to take revenge against Darayya for having rejected the conditions of a truce it had proposed, and its fighters’ determination after they brought down a military helicopter, halting the regime’s recent military campaign against the town. The regime renewed its bombing of Homs’s to avoid having to honor its commitment to allow in 12 shipments of humanitarian aid and provide safe passage out for women and children. Over the course of Geneva II, 602 people were killed, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which means that the death rate remained as it was before the conference. This reinforces the disjuncture between what is happening on the ground and the course of the negotiation process, as if the negotiations are taking place at a different time to the one being lived by Syrians under bombardment.

As a result of international indifference, the regime is free to do as it pleases on the ground, and has used this as leverage to upset the conference’s priorities. It refused to recognize the terms of reference, and put forward an alternative document as the basis for talks.[1] Under Russian pressure, however, the regime relented and accepted the Geneva 1 communiqué, though it insisted on sequentially discussing the points in Geneva I to delay discussion of a transitional governing body, article 9, extend the negotiations, deflect talks of “anti-terrorism,” and become mired in details. This approach has been successfully used by the regime when dealing with previous initiatives, and imitates an Israeli-style of negotiation. The essential difference is the complete international disregard for the Syrian regime’s savagery, including its use of barrel bombs to destroy its own cities.[2] Israel considers “terrorism” an autonomous issue, separate from itself and unconnected to its causes; hence, Israel calls resistance to the occupation “terrorism” unrelated to the occupation, and putting an end to terrorism becomes a condition for talks on any political matter. Similarly, the Syrian regime calls disparate armed action against it “terrorism,” while knowing full well that the opposition took up arms after more than a year of a non-violent revolution, even when faced every form of suppression and extreme violence.

The regime also used the conference to reach out to Western media and public opinion. The Syrian delegation was more interested in holding press conferences (three or four per day) than in attending the negotiation sessions. The regime also sent along a press contingent of about 50 journalists to fill the press conferences, thereby giving the impression that they were a third party asking friendly questions.

The Opposition’s Position

As a result of international pressure and US promises to reconsider arming the “moderate” opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces took part in Geneva II without expecting any quick or definitive outcomes. In light of this, the Coalition endeavored to achieve interim objectives, such as reasserting itself as the “civil” representative of the Syrian revolution and exposing the regime’s brutality and inhumane treatment of civilians, as well as its lack of commitment to reaching a settlement.

Contrary to expectations, and despite minimal preparation and expertise, the opposition delegation’s political and technical performance was satisfactory, garnering it popular support and international momentum. However, this momentum needs to be translated into tangible humanitarian and political results. The delegation prevented the dissipation of negotiations, solidified the terms of reference for talks, and forced the regime to recognize Geneva I. In contrast to the regime’s delegation, they ascribed little importance to reaching out to the Western media, focusing instead on the Arab media, though many have felt that they should have taken advantage of its presence in Geneva to address the West in a thoughtful, inspiring manner. Despite the improvement in its performance and the absence of any real problems, the spokesmen for the opposition were ill-prepared to be media spokespeople as they lacked the necessary public spokesperson expertise.

The Sponsoring Parties: The US, Russia, and the UN

The sponsoring parties—the US, Russia, and the UN—wanted to hold the conference with an international presence, understanding all-too-well that the crisis , with its complexities and ramifications, could not be “solved” or have any major breakthroughs in the foreseeable future. Thus, the US and Russian delegations were largely absent from the negotiations until matters had come to a head with the regime’s rejection of Geneva I, and the likelihood that one or both sides would withdraw from the conference. The Russian delegation was obliged to return from Moscow to intervene and persuade the regime’s delegation to accept Geneva I and discuss the interim governing body. However, it soon became apparent from the regime’s behavior and statements that this agreement was a formality meant to spare their allies embarrassment.

Where is the Crisis Heading?

Given that there are no tangible alternatives, convening the Geneva II conference has launched a negotiation track that represents the “only way” agreed upon until now to solve the Syrian crisis. Therefore, the sponsoring parties will likely insist on continued negotiations even if results are not forthcoming. Should the talks end in failure, all would need to make decisions that no one wants to initiate. In view of this, Geneva II might help to achieve one of two aims:

 1-   Conflict Resolution

 Many international and regional powers are earnest in their desire to end the conflict because its repercussions are being felt outside of Syria’s borders, creating a regional conflict in which a number of powers are tussling to strengthen their influence and protect their interests. As a result of the ethnic and religious diversity in the region, the Syrian conflict has taken on a sectarian nature, and, by virtue of regional alignments, it appears at times to be a Sunni-Shiite conflict. The continuation of the conflict could lead to a regional explosion, with international ramifications, potentially causing a redrawing of the region’s map. From that perspective alone, Geneva II may provide international powers an opportunity to end the conflict, and forestall the unpredictable escalation of events.

 2-   Conflict Management

While Geneva II may be a prelude to solving the crisis, it could also be a means to “manage” it should a solution prove impossible. The “management” of the crisis would also mean the continuation of the conflict, albeit confined to its geographical domain and removed from the vital interests of the major powers, releasing them from any responsibility as they could claim that political negotiations were in place. These managing powers would then need to urge the parties to negotiate, to propose initiatives, and to convene periodic meetings without resolve, a situation mirroring Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Given the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which rests on the avoidance of direct intervention as long as the conflict does not form a direct threat to US national security, this possibility remains a distinct possibility. Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria, told the Coalition delegation that “the Geneva II track is arduous and long and may take a year to achieve serious results,”[3] suggesting that matters are heading in this direction.

Other involved nations would also seek to manage the conflict for their own self-interests. For example, it is in line with Israel’s vision of the Syrian conflict, and its desire to destroy Syrian capabilities. Iran, for its part, perceives a “fight for existence” underway in Syria that it cannot afford to lose. Perhaps more so than any other nation, Russia believes that it has the ability to deal with possible developments in the Syrian conflict provided it remains contained. Accordingly, it is unlikely that the Coalition delegation will sense any development in Russia’s position during its visit to Moscow. On the contrary, Russia is set to cause more confusion by separately inviting bodies and individuals from the opposition, indicating that it is reaching out to all parties while simultaneously calling for the reformation of the delegation to the Geneva talks to include figures from the opposition inside Syria. In so doing, Russia wants to provoke a debate over the necessity of expanding the opposition delegation to shift international pressure from the regime to the opposition, and create disagreements inside the delegation at the second round.

Against this background, and in order to achieve better results in the end, the Syrian opposition should continue to focus on the formation of a transitional governing body, with full powers as the main goal of the negotiations, and demand a definite timetable for the negotiations and the transitional period. Simultaneously, it needs to create internal stability and unanimity, which would necessitate extending an invitation to those who withdrew after the Coalition’s recent internal elections, and increase coordination with military and civilian forces inside Syria. These actions together will strengthen the Coalition’s position and presence in future talks. The opposition would do well to avoid becoming preoccupied with the composition of its delegation, its level of competence and experience, or any advanced negotiating tactics it might use because none of this will not alter Russia’s position, or the regime’s, at this time.

Currently, the delegation’s foremost concerns need to be the manner in which Syria’s government will transition to become democratic and an honest, documented record of the regime’s crimes before and after the revolution. On this point in particular, the Coalition must improve its handling of the media, especially Western media, to send out the required messages during upcoming talks. Finally, in parallel with the negotiations, it is important to keep working to strengthen the Coalition government’s position as an executive body; to sort out the Coalition’s position as a parliament for the Syrian people; and to make every effort to coordinate with those who support the revolution on the ground in case Geneva II fails to achieve its aims or its course falters.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on February 4th, 2014 (prior to Geneva II) can be  found here.

[1] The regime document comprised five points: 1) respect for Syrian sovereignty; 2) no territorial concessions would occur and all territories would be restored; 3) no outside intervention or diktat would be honored; 4) rejection of terrorism; and 5) incitement in the media must cease. See “The regime proposes a document to overturn the priorities of Geneva II,” (in Arabic) Al-Hayat, January 28, 2014, http://alhayat.com/Details/597250.

[2] For information on the barrel bombs, their manufacture, and destructive effect see: “An Autobiography of Bashar al-Assad’s Barrels,” (in Arabic) Zaman Al-Wasl, December 25, 2013, http://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/44714.html. Alternatively, see the English version of this website at http://www.zamanalwsl.net/en/index.php.

[3] Meeting with a member of the opposition delegation, Michel Kilo in his interview on Al-Jazeera on January 29, 2014 on the Liqa al-Yom program.