Analysis: The road to Syria peace talks

A proposed conference in Geneva is gaining traction with the US and Russia throwing diplomatic muscle behind the plan.

Many hope a peace conference will include face-to-face talks between Syria's government and opposition [AFP]

United Nations – New chances that international peace talks will take place in Geneva in the next month hang in the balance of ongoing diplomatic maneuvering.

Syria has expressed its intention, in principle, to attend. But Russia is warning that the decision of a divided EU to allow its arms embargo to lapse threatens the prospects for the conference. The Syrian opposition, which has never been united, still has not decided if it will attend.

It is, however, worth looking at what is planned in Geneva. When analysts consider the importance of the meeting if it were to take place, the reasons for all the current wrangling become much clearer. Some of the key issues include:

US/Russia agreement on the plan

The idea for Geneva 2 came from the US and Russia. They certainly do not agree on most things concerning Syria. But for the first time in months, the deadlock has been broken. The two countries agreed at the beginning of May on a plan for the way forward.

Geneva 2 would not be just another international meeting on Syria. What is proposed is face-to-face talks between one delegation representing the opposition, and another made up of regime figures.

How is that different from Geneva 1? 

The first Geneva meeting was held on June 30, 2012. Back then, many of those attending did so to pay lip service to the peace initiative of the then UN and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan.

It was formally agreed was that “a transitional governing body” with “full executive powers” should be formed, leading Syria to “free and fair multi-party elections”.

The “Action Group” of countries had come up with a plan, but then they completely ignored what had been agreed. Most did not really believe a negotiated settlement was the way things would play out. They felt the outcome in Syria, like in Libya a year earlier, would be the result of a military victory. At the time, both sides in the conflict, and their international backers, believed that they could win on the battlefield.

Why revive the Geneva Process now?

The Russians have continually invoked Geneva over the last year. But the plan was not mentioned by the US government for several months. Things only changed when John Kerry took over as US Secretary of State in February. The humanitarian situation was becoming desperate, the risk of major regional instability was growing, and there were credible reports that chemical weapons had been used. Yet he knew the White House still had no appetite for military intervention.

Kerry has known his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for years. Lavrov, who had a frosty relationship with Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, is believed to have a much better rapport with the new Secretary of State. Many of the US concerns about the situation, particularly on chemical weapons and regional turmoil, are shared by Russia.

On May 7, Kerry met Lavrov in Moscow. They agreed to another Geneva meeting – but this time with the ambitious goal of face-to-face talks to form that “transitional governing body”. Lavrov would persuade the regime to attend. Kerry would lead western efforts to get the divided opposition to the table at Geneva.

A tight timeline was set. Initially, it was proposed the conference should be held by the end of May. That date has slipped and it is now proposed that the conference should be held during the week of June 10. The idea is to create momentum, which could become unstoppable. It is also considered helpful that the talks take place the week before world leaders meet in Northern Ireland for the annual G8 gathering. The idea, one diplomat said, is that the G8 would be able to, “build on any progress, or if Geneva fails, to pick up the pieces.”

Who would be at Geneva?

Diplomats say ideally both sides would send a negotiating team of about eight members. They admit, however, that bigger teams may be needed, particularly to represent all the strands of the opposition.

The opposition has said that no one from the regime with “blood on their hands” should be allowed to be attend Geneva. Some western diplomats, however, are concerned that may mean Assad sending a low level delegation with no authority to make concessions.

Even if the opposition does decide to attend, questions will also be asked about whether their delegation really represents those fighting on the ground in Syria.

The conference will be held inside the Palais de Nations in Geneva, the UN’s European headquarters – and once the base of its ill-fated predecessor the League of Nations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would open the session, before handing over to the Special Representative of the UN and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi. He would handle the detailed negotiations, which would last about three days.

Brahimi chaired the talks at Bonn in 2001, which drew up the post-Taliban administration of Afghanistan. Brahimi is said to have told diplomats that Bonn would be his model for Geneva 2.

Western nations initially did not want international representation at the conference changed from Geneva 1. In June last year, the countries that attended were China, Russia, France, UK, US, Turkey, Qatar, Iraq and Kuwait, in addition to the EU, UN and Arab League. Kuwait was there because it chaired the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Arab League.

Qatar chaired the Arab league’s Syria committee, and Iraq was the overall chair of the Arab League. This time around, if the same pattern is followed, the Arab states will be represented by Egypt (chair of Foreign ministers) and Qatar (currently both the overall chair and the chair of Syria committee).

Russia, however, would like the participation extended. Iran, Syria’s closest ally, would like to attend. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, one of two countries most involved in arming and assisting the opposition, does not want to be excluded again. There are other core members of the Friends of Syria group who would like to attend.

It is possible the opening session will be widened to all those that want to attend. One diplomat told Al Jazeera that “this photo op” would then be followed by the actual negotiations, where only a small group of countries would get involved. 

What about Assad? 

This is the big question that has been left unanswered by the US and Russia. What happens to Assad, his family and his inner circle? Some western diplomats concede that although there can be no place for the family in a future Syria, perhaps he could stay on in the initial transition phase.

The “new transitional governing body” will take over executive powers, but perhaps diplomats say Assad “could keep the Palace for a time” in a ceremonial role. Among the western allies, France is the country most opposed to Assad having any role at all.

Arms embargo 

Recent discussions over lifting the EU arms embargo may be seen to be going against the spirit of the US/Russian peace plan. Why would you support a peace proposal while suggesting you may soon start arming one of the sides in the conflict?

The EU was deeply divided on the issue, but in the end decided to allow its current arms ban on the opposition to lapse. This was a victory for the UK and France, who argue that the only way to get Assad to agree to negotiate at Geneva and make necessary concessions was to present him with a stark alternative.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign minister has said this decision threatens the chances of Geneva 2 taking place. At the same time, he suggested Russia will ship S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, adding almost wryly that they would be a “stabilising factor”.

Fighting on the ground 

An increase in recent offensive operations by the regime on the ground, particularly around the strategic town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, is almost certainly in part linked to the prospect of Geneva. Assad is probably trying to strengthen his hand in negotiations, by changing the facts on the ground before they start.  

Western diplomats say they do not want even to talk about a possible partition of Syria as part of negotiations, but they believe this could be part of the Assad game plan.

Source: Al Jazeera