Geneva II: A post-mortem

With both sides coming to Geneva kicking and screaming, negotiations had no chance of success.

For Syria, a transition government should not be the end goal [Reuters]

Although the Geneva II negotiations are still under way, it is not too premature to issue a post-mortem. The negotiations were set up to fail from the beginning as the regime and opposition negotiators came kicking and screaming at the behest of their foreign patrons, with no substantive grounds or political appetite for serious discussion.

In the first days of the negotiations both parties seemed more interested in political theatrics than in having negotiations around core political issues. Indeed, the only real points of agreement have come around humanitarian issues, but even these measures merely serve to deflect attention and energy away from political issues. While it is fair to have pragmatic and tempered expectations for such peace negotiations – and thus to look forward to Geneva III, IV, V and so on when more substantive political transition issues may be discussed – the failure of this round of negotiations to produce any tangible political change highlights not only the weakness of the process as presently constituted, but a failure in how Geneva has framed and articulated the core political issues that need to be resolved.

The singular focus on political transition – no doubt a necessary and desired objective – has deflected focus from more deeper and long-term problems facing Syrians. Grounding the negotiations in a set of goals established by Geneva I is productive, but ultimately ignores the evolution and trajectory of the conflict since June 2012 when these goals were first established. What is needed is a peace process that not only attempts to bring about a political transition, but one that simultaneously addresses the more intractable issues that will face Syrians in the future. At this point in the conflict, it is unclear whether a negotiated political transition on its own will suffice in putting a halt to the violence and displacement wrought by the conflict.

Inside Syria – Syrian hopes pinned to Geneva II

Reframing the Syrian revolution

When the Geneva I principles were conceived, Syria was in the throes of a non-violent uprising that was increasingly becoming militarised. Foreign intervention into the Syrian conflict assumed different forms as it does now and the expectations of the opposition were that a transitional body would begin to realise the main demands of the uprising.

Since then the conflict has evolved considerably and its militarised dimensions have altered its trajectory. This has not only led to disturbing increases in violence but a greater penetration of the country by pro-regime and pro-rebel groups and supporters. Meanwhile, the state’s institutions have all but collapsed and the work of providing food, electricity, and other services has fallen into the hands of local authorities that are operating independently of one another.

The problem that the Geneva process is trying to solve was clearly framed around the question of who should govern the country. For the opposition and the wider international community, they rightly argued that the regime had lost legitimacy and authority to govern. Even today the opposition calls a transition body “the core issue” of the negotiations. The main assumption is that a transition body could serve to address the political grievances at the heart of the uprising and bring about an end to violence. Yet, the Syrian uprising looked very different when Geneva I occurred and the core of the opposition demands were formulated and legitimised by the international community. Since then, the Syrian uprising morphed into, and became layered against, a brutally violent civil conflict. The realities on the ground have changed radically.

As such, it is unlikely that the process envisioned and designed by the Geneva negotiations can actually bring about a political solution that would contribute to moving the conflict towards resolution. While the early stages of the uprising may have been conducive to the imposition of a solution from above through an international peace process, the current state of the situation clearly does not. The framework for the peace negotiations has quite simply not adjusted to the realities of the conflict.

There is also the very serious question of implementing any agreement reached through the Geneva process. Can anyone take seriously the possibility that the Syrian opposition has the ability to reign in rebel groups on the ground? One need only consider the rejection of the Geneva process by the more powerful groups to know the answer. The same question could be asked of the regime and its international patrons and whether they have the ability to halt violence committed by the regular army and the irregular militias operating in defence of the regime. This does not bode well for the process and points to the possibility that, in the future, should there be a formal political agreement of any sort by the regime and opposition, that it will have little material effect on the ground. It seems that the possibility for negotiations to have such an effect has passed.

Moving forward

Recognition of the complexity of the Syrian conflict and the need for a more comprehensive approach to its resolution does not require totally abandoning the Geneva process. Nor does it require jettisoning demands for a transition body. Syria absolutely needs a political transition. This should certainly remain a central focus of any negotiations. But it needs much more than that at this point and in the future. A transition body should not be the end goal, and the assumptions of the process moving forward should not be that transition would miraculously lead to solving all of Syria’s problems generated by the conflict. One only needs to look to Syria’s neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon, for evidence of how efforts to impose a post-conflict governance structure can go awry and contribute to the continuation of conflict, albeit by other means.

The Geneva process is destined to remain stagnant unless its patrons adapt to the realities on the ground and reframe what constitutes core political issues and points of negotiation. The current realities suggest that the solution of the battlefield is preferred to that of the negotiating table. Until this changes, the Geneva negotiations will remain political theatre. 

Samer N Abboud is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University,  Pennsylvania. His current focus is on Syrian capital flight.   

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