The opposition achieved a number of important moral and media victories at the first round of peace talks in Geneva that concluded last week.
Firstly, the Syrian National Coalition agreed to attend the Geneva II meeting despite the troubled birth of that decision. Secondly, the Coalition arrived as the representatives of the opposition, despite Moscow’s attempts to call in the internal and regime-controlled fake opposition and the efforts by the regional “Friends of the Syrian people” group to create an alternative entity. Thirdly, the withdrawal of the invitation from the General Secretary of the U.N to Iran to attend the conference added to their wins. Fourthly, the leaking of a report, documented by picture evidence, of 11,000 tortured and killed prisoners on the same evening when the settlement train was launched from Montreux station was a moral and public coup.
The speech given by the head of the government delegation, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem at the opening of talks also amounted to an unexpected gift for the opposition and its allies. His concentration on “fighting terrorism” while ignoring the Geneva statement, on the basis of which Ban Ki-moon sent his written invitations, put Syria’s Russian allies in an embarrassing situation. Their Russian ally tried to remedy this situation by forcing the government delegation, in Geneva and Damascus, to stick to the Geneva statement as a basis and reference for the negotiation process.
Over the three years conflict, the content of the official Syrian rhetoric has differed little among different speakers. The repeated themes are that the government considers the whole crisis a “foreign conspiracy” in the context of the U.S. “War on Terror” and almost never acknowledges the existence of any internal political crisis. It considers the opposition abroad as mere “clients”, who have no representative legitimacy, and say all of them all are “Takfiri” or Sunni radicals.
This position was immediately apparent in the composition of the government delegation to the negotiations, suitable for international foreign relations but not for any internal negotiations.
Over the last three years, the government has continued with military efforts aimed at crushing the revolution. On the other side, the past three years have seen the opposition working to bring the regime down, along with allots symbols and pillars, rejecting any dialogue or negotiation with the regime and putting the resignation of President Bashar Assad as a pre-condition for any negotiation process. The opposition was betting on the “illusion” of direct international intervention or the establishment of safe havens and buffers in the north and south of the country. They were demanding “qualitative arms" that would turn the power balance on the ground, working to achieve ground victories before sitting at the negotiation table.
Every party was betting on winning by eradicating the other; no party accepted winning in degrees. But by sitting with each other at one table they have ended this position and finally recognised the other. The two Syrian delegations know that along with the negotiations that are going on in one or two rooms in the headquarters of the United Nations, there are also negotiations going on between the Americans and Russians, and on the wider circle of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well at the regional level. The two delegations are also aware that parallel to the international and regional negotiations about Syria are similar negotiations about other files in the region; namely the Iranian nuclear file and the Israeli – Palestinian peace process. The two Syrian parties are also well aware that along with the political track, there is a chemical track.
The overlap and complexity of these files and the timetable of their implementation, which comes in the middle of the year that ends Assad's presidential term, opens the door for tenders at the expense of the Syrian interior, which is fragile and subject to manipulation according to other's agendas and agreements imposed from above.
The Americans tried to engage the Russians in the negotiations about a transitional governing body and the formation of a presidential council based on consensus. They also tried to list potential candidates for membership on the Syrian presidential council. But until now the Russians have avoided these discussions, preferring to keep the matter within the terms of “Syrian sovereignty” and a rejection of "external interference”.
What the Russians and the Americans have agreed on is: The formation of the transitional governing body and prevention of the emergence of hardliners to power. This agreement is the result of their mutual conviction that the continuation of the current situation ultimately means the establishment of two regions: One under regime control and includes the coast, Homs, Hama and Damascus, and the other including areas to the north and south of the county. A part of northern Syria will become a terrorism quagmire, threatening not only the interests of Russia, Iran and their allies, Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and Hezbollah, but also the interests of America and its allies Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
According to a senior western official, the main U.S.-Russian agreement is on “change in light of continuity”. The striking thing is that this is the same slogan that was launched by Assad at the beginning of his reign, when he succeeded his father in 2000. Moscow and Washington’s apparent acceptance of the principle ultimately means Russia has accepted discontinuity for the regime, while Washington appears to have accepted the idea of folding “regime change” into attempts to root out its institutions. But they differ on how to get to that stage – and about the prospects for “change” and the basis of the “continuity”.
The Russians and Americans have left the two Syrian parties, the regime and opposition, alone to agree about the details of the change-continuity equation. Now, they must agree which institutions must be preserved. What is the difference between the state and the regime? How can the security services be reformed to operate according to the international standards without collapsing? How can defectors be reintegrated into the national army while maintaining the army’s unity? Is it possible to maintain the security and military institutions that are capable to fighting terrorism without using the same method of hatching terrorists for survival? What is the relationship between the military and the state? To whom do the army and the security services answer to? What is the relationship between the legislative and the executive authorities and between the government and the presidency, the parliament and the presidency? Which kind of political system will rule the country; presidential, parliamentary or mixed? How long is the presidential term? How is it possible to maintain a balance between decentralization through local administrations on one hand, and the prevention of dividing the country on the other?
None of the Geneva curators expects any breakthrough soon. All of them are talking about months or even years. The role of the Americans and the Russians is to keep the diplomacy bicycle moving, to keep the wheels in motion. The American and the Russians are convinced now that Geneva II should be considered as a process that will take a long time. In so doing, that time has become the aim. The continuation of the political process, even if there are no clear results allows for the creation of a political track in parallel to military action on the ground. The Geneva process allows the return of politics to the Syrian file. The reactivation of the moderate Syrians, meanwhile, allows both the regime and the opposition to land safely from their high positions.
Despite the fact that the birth has been cesarean, this process has still borne a political alternative which may convince the influential parties from both the regime and the opposition of the possibility of “change in light of continuity”.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer