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Update No: 111 - (26/05/13)

Why would Asad even consider taking part at the Geneva Peace Conference?

Summary: Another international conference on Syria is expected to take place in Geneva. Dubbed ‘Geneva 2’, the Conference has the ambitious goal of finding a political solution to the Syrian Civil war. ‘Geneva 1’, which was held in late June 2012, ended to the delight of Syria’s ally, Russia, as Foreign Affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed satisfaction that the talks ended without any specific demand for President Bashar al-Asad to step down. Geneva 1 essentially endorsed the ‘status-quo’. Geneva 1 was attended by the foreign affairs representatives from all five UN Security Council permanent members – Russia, USA, PR China, France and the UK as well as the regional powers, which have carved out a big stake in the outcome of the Syrian crisis, namely Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar. The notable exceptions were the absence of arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, for which the Syrian battlefield has come to serve as one of their proxy battlefields for regional influence, marked by a deepening divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam. ‘Geneva 2’ has not begun yet but it is already slated for failure.

Expectations that some kind of peace might be reached are unrealistic and there are already intense discussions as to whether or not Iran should be allowed to participate. Given its role in Syria and Lebanon, the exclusion of Iran would be an error, a priori, just as the exclusion of Saudi Arabia would be. Russia, one of the main backers of the Conference, and a steadfast Asad ally, has welcomed Iran’s participation, suggesting that Geneva 2 might take place no sooner than the middle of June, or after the Iranian presidential elections. China also wants Iran’s involvement and it has also pressed for Riyadh to take part. Nevertheless, it is hard to see what the US superpower, Russia, China and even Iran might to do to restore peace in Syria. The Conference, as it is shaping up, would be far more useful in re-establishing some sort of dialogue between Iran and its allies and international enemies. Surely, if the sole issue in Syria were the elimination of the Asad regime, it would not be difficult to organize a military mission that could dispense with it as fast as NATO dispensed the Qadhafi dictatorship in Libya.

Would that bring peace to Syria? Hardly; it would, rather, guarantee the continuation of bloodshed in a Lebanon 1980’s civil war like scenario, which would surely drag its neighbours into the fold at some point. Syrian Alawites are not fighting to keep the Syrian dictatorship afloat; rather, they are fighting for their lives in a socio-political region that is still dominated by sectarianism.

If there is any doubt, one only need look to Syria’s neighbour to the east, Iraq, where sectarian violence positively thrives, ten years after the official collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime (April 15, 2003) and with the famous ink-stained thumb election process in full swing, saw the highest number of bombings and related victims of the past five years in April 2013: so much for liberation and democracy!

While, it would extremely optimistic to describe the ‘Arab Awakening’ revolts in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya as successes – security and personal freedoms were far more effectively guaranteed by the dictatorships that were displaced than by the new democratically elected governments – it is common sense that Syria should not be included in the ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Arab Spring’ paradigm.

The three North African countries are far more ethnically and culturally uniform; their populations are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim (with the exception of Egypt’s 10% Christian minority) and their deposed regimes, dictatorial as they may have been, were not reliant on a sectarian model. North African states were always more socially and politically cohesive, owing to their distance from the epicentre of the Ottoman Empire until the latter’s collapse in 1918.

The distance allowed them to develop authorities and states in their own right with little of the border issues, population displacements and sectarian divisions that have plagued the Arab states that were under full Ottoman authority until 1918, namely Iraq and Syria, not to mention Lebanon and Palestine. The Kurdish and Palestinian questions are directly related to the collapse of the Ottomans, as are the Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite divisions that plague the region to this day. There was little chance that the military intervention in Iraq would result in a stable democracy, given the relevance of this legacy. There is just as small a chance that forcibly removing Asad from power, might result in peace for Syria, quite apart from any consideration of how palatable to US citizens, or those of other NATO member states, a military intervention in Syria might be.

The other problem with Geneva 2 is that the NATO parties and the pro-opposition camp, including Turkey and Qatar, see themselves as going to the conference not to discuss, but to impose an outcome. They have clearly stated that Bashar al-Asad will not have any role to play in Syria’s future. This is no assurance to the Alawite minority or to its allies in the Christian and even some of the Sunni communities, who are concerned by the rise to prominence of radical Islamic groups in the Syrian opposition.

What incentive would there be for Syria to participate or look favourably upon any decision taken at Geneva 2, when the outcome has already been sealed? US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria’ meeting in Amman, Jordan, asked Asad to “work in favour of peace, warning him that failure to cooperate would result in a larger official level support for the opposition – meaning, NATO would agree to arming the rebels. Asad might reply to the threats and incentives that there is no reason for his regime to resign or abandon the fight, because the rebels are in an increasingly difficult tactical position.

The Syrian regime has made significant gains in the past few months and the German security services, Bundesnachrichtendienst, recently went so far as to suggest that the Asad regime is as strong as ever. And this is another essential difference between Syria and the ‘Arab Awakening’ trio; the regime has suffered relatively few desertions and has been able to maintain air superiority, which would only be challenged by an externally imposed no-fly zone. Asad’s troops have made gains in supplies of fuel and equipment and over control of the territory, such that, at the current pace of recovery, German security reports – as reported by ‘Der Spiegel’ – could regain control of much of the country before the end of 2013. The rebels, meanwhile, are facing difficulties, which also makes them reluctant to negotiate with Asad’s regime, also because there is a disconnect between the civilian opposition leadership, based outside Syria, and the rebel fighters on the ground. The Asad regime similarly has also received outside help from Hezbollah.

The only area of Syria that the Asad regime might be willing to give up is the North, which has gradually been falling under Kurdish authority. That plays in Asad’s favour, as it constitutes an even greater threat for Turkey, which faced with the establishment of autonomous Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria would likely incur a more intense Kurdish separatist campaign internally. Turkey has already exposed its vulnerability to the Syrian civil war, a fact that was reaffirmed by the explosion of two car bombs at the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in the southern province of Hatay on May 11, no matter who was responsible.. Ultimately, there is little incentive for Syria to participate directly in Geneva 2. It might be more worthwhile in moving toward peace, for the West to pursue a more active diplomacy with the Iranian government, which might be compelled to put practical pressure on Damascus in return for a release of the crippling sanctions and other diplomatic restrictions that continue to be piled on.

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