All eyes are currently on the Swiss city of Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva, as there are only a few days left until the beginning of the International Peace Conference on Syria, which has now been torn by conflict for 34 months. It is clear now, especially, after the brutal chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus, that the Western powers have ruled out the possibility of applying any kind of military solution to the crisis. Rather, the superpowers seem to instrumentalise the chemical attack to steer the Syrian regime and the opposition factions towards the negotiation table. Geneva II proposes to put an immediate end to all violence, and to establish a transitional governing body with full executive powers that would include members of the opposition and the regime. This sounds excellent for many Syrians, especially those in the so-called ‘grey zone’ who seek to carry on their daily lives without being victims of random artillery or sniper bullets. Yet, to what extent are the Geneva Conference objectives achievable? And what opportunities and challenges does this conference pose for Syria? The following account pursues an answer to these questions.
Regional and international actors: the key players?
There is no doubt that since March 2011, Syria’s status has become utterly reversed. Its position has switched from being a regional player on the Middle East arena to becoming a heated battlefield for regional and international players. This is not to simplify the Syrian uprising by characterising it as a proxy war; rather, it shows how Syria’s geostrategic position and complex alliances make it extremely vulnerable to the influence of external actors. One crucial dimension of the unfolding drama is that these external actors have the power to either prolong or mitigate the current conflict.
Russia and Iran, its close allies, have consistently expressed their solidarity with the regime and provided it with support. However, this determination to support the regime is most likely motivated by realpolitik aims rather than loyalty to the Assad dynasty. With their weapons shipments and political manoeuvres, the Russians are seeking to empower Moscow’s position in relation to Washington and to change the rules of the game. With the nuclear deal and the flow of Revolutionary Guard fighters to Syria, Iran is seeking to carve out a place for itself in the international community. On the other hand, Turkey, Saudi and Qatar are all backing the ‘Sunni bloc’ in their attempt to attain regional hegemony over the ‘Shiite axis’. Countering these moves are the U.S, the UK and France’s attempts to maintain the balance of power. These attempts consist of keeping the Jihadis away from their borders, with a view to retaining a high degree of influence in the future Syrian government.
The good news is that all of these actors have booked a chair in Geneva II and are pushing for a political settlement. This time, they seem to be genuinely alarmed by the devastating implications of the conflict; the mushrooming of new Jihadi groups and the worsening refugee situation are now factors which go beyond their control. Hence, all these actors have spent the last few months convincing their counterparts and rivals to fly to Geneva. Kerry and Lavrov rushed to Paris on January 12, exchanged Idaho potatoes and Russian fur hats to alleviate their moods before discussing the implementation of Geneva II, and a ‘localised ceasefire’. In the same context, Iran’s Foreign Minister flew to Damascus on January 15 to express his government’s support for a political settlement for the Syrian conflict. Two days before heading to Damascus, however, the Iranian top diplomat threatened that those seeking to exclude Iran from Geneva II would “regret” his country’s absence. In parallel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have encouraged the divergent cliques among the Syrian political opposition to take part in the Geneva peace talks. They have also urged armed groups to cease their attacks against the regime’s forces and to yield control of the front to al-Qaeda affiliate groups. Unsurprisingly, the Free Syrian Army and many Syrian Islamist armed groups supported by Turkey and the Gulf were given the green light earlier this month to engage in clashes with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). As a result, the Islamist militias in Syria came to be viewed as less radical groups that could be included in the political process.
Undoubtedly, each of these external actors has helped to fuel the conflict from beyond the Syrian borders, and to steer it in line with their own interests. However, finally, they have agreed to come together to formulate a political solution, and this presents an opportunity to stop the ongoing violence; it is the first step towards implementing peaceful resolutions. Yet, there are many challenges that will face these actors’ attempts to implement the Geneva II resolutions on the ground. Additionally, it is questionable to what extent Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are ready to cut the financial and logistic support they provide to the Islamic Front. This group comprises some 45,000 Islamist fighters whose ideology varies from moderate to radical. Is Iran ready now to withdraw its commanders and the Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militias from Syria? And most importantly: are the Russians capable of convincing their allies to stop dropping TNT barrels on Syrian cities, and to stop targeting what the regime dubs as ‘terrorist thugs’? If the answer to all these questions is yes – which is unlikely – then Geneva II may be capable of putting an end to the ongoing bloodshed in Syria.
What about the Syrians?
Regardless of its military capabilities and the wealth of class, sectarian and regional alliances it enjoys, the Syrian regime failed to quell the ‘crises’. With all its war tactics, which ranged from its use of scud missiles to systematic starvation, the regime’s so-called al-hal al-`amny and al-hal al-askary (‘security and military solutions’) proved unable to prevail over the rebels. The Chemical Weapons dealindicates that the regime has come to accept the political solution and declare its readiness to take part in the Geneva talks. Regardless of whether the regime’s real aim is to buy time rather than to seriously engage in peace talks, the fact that the regime is willing to sit at the same table with those whom it once dubbed ‘traitors’ presents an opportunity. However the extent of the regime’s commitment to establish stability must be questioned: is it determined to withdraw the Syrian army and to disarm all pro-regime armed groups who have been fighting for three years against their fellow Syrians? Is the regime able to bring security and stability to the Syrian territories? Above all, is the regime ready to share power with the Islamists and the other opposition factions that it once labelled as ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’? If the answer to these questions is yes, then hopes for the success of Geneva II are not false.
The Syrian opposition is weak, fragmented and lacking legitimacy in the eyes of many Syrians, both pro- and anti-Assad. Consequently, they have been unable to reach a decision on whether to go to Geneva or not. The so-called muaradet al-dakhel (‘the inside opposition’) consists of the Coordination Committee for Democratic change and Building the Syrian State Current, despite having long supported the peaceful transition of power in Syria, these groups reject the Geneva II conference. It was unclear, however, whether or not they received an invitation to participate in the conference. On the other hand, the Syrian National Council turned down its invitation and denounced the factions that agreed to go to Montreux. Therefore, the Syrian National Coalition seems to be the only semi-inclusive political body representing the opposition at Geneva II. Although the Coalition is recognised by the superpowers, it is not recognised by many anti-regime Syrians. It has some fatal flaws, the most significant being the wide gaps with Syrians on the ground and also with other opposition factions and armed groups. However, the fact that one opposition faction is ready to negotiate the establishment of a transitional government with the Syrian regime is further representative of Geneva II as a chance for attaining peace and stability. If the talks are fruitful, the Syrian National Coalition might win the hearts and the minds of Syrians in the ‘grey zone’, which would empower it significantly. Is the Syrian National Coalition capable of winning over Syrians in other categories, however? Can it endear itself to the inhabitants of the besieged areas, some of whom are dying of starvation? Is the Syrian National Coalition capable of gaining the upper hand over the various armed groups on the ground? If so, the prospect of establishing a sustainable state of peace and stability may be on the horizon.
A political settlement between regional and international actors is the first and foremost prerequisite for the success of Geneva II. Each of these actors must share a serious determination to stop the war in Syria. This can be reached if each actor puts the necessary amount of pressure on their patrons inside Syria, and if all militarily supplies are cut off. In this respect, Syria’s immediate future will be determined on foreign soil; the outcome of the war is in the hands of the superpowers. However, Syria’s ultimate future is in the hand of Syrians; only Syrians are able to end this war-torn chapter of their history and to build a stronger, more democratic Syria. This Syria cannot be established unless all Syrians come to realise that no one group can eliminate the other, and that the factions must find a way of peacefully co-existing.
Amidst the violence, the sectarian polarisation and the pressure of the security dilemma, Syrians on the ground seem capable to doing this. Many anti-Assad Syrians fled from Idlib and Aleppo to Latakia (the stronghold of the Assad regime) and are communicating civilly with pro-Assad Syrians. Many activists have also fled from Hama to neighbouring Salamieh, with many others taking refuge in Sweida. It is arguable, therefore, that a sense of integration and civil peace is beginning to settle at the grassroots level. The discourse directed from above by the external actors involved, however, is obstructing this process by creating barriers between Syrians of different political and religious groups.
In fact, Syrians in the ‘grey zone’ are the most likely to adhere to Geneva II and give their support to any attempt at peaceful resolution. However, after some 130,000 dead, 6 million refugees and the total destruction of the infrastructure, those in the ‘red zone’ cannot see any chances in Geneva II. For them, it is useless to go to the negotiation table when there are snipers in the building next door to them. Here it is worth recalling a story published in the Telegraph Newspaper about five wolves who attempted to flee Colchester Zoo last November in Essex, UK. Six Timber wolves escaped their cage; the police were called and attempted to manoeuvre them back to their cage. Having seen guns and jets, one of the wolves returned immediately to its cage of its own accord. The others refused; two were captured and placed back over the fence of the enclosure. The other three refused to go back to their cage as the jet hovering over their heads. So they were shot dead.