Peace talks aiming to bring Syria's bloody civil war towards a peaceful conclusion finally began yesterday in Switzerland, the land of peace and harmony. The conference proper starts Friday, and will see delegates getting down to the seemingly impossible task of trying to thrash out a deal.
But yesterday was the initial meeting of the "Geneva II" conference, where the participants got to let off some steam in lengthy speeches. All things considered, the occasion didn't get off to the best start, with Syria's Foreign Minister using his speech to accuse the attendees of having "Syrian blood on their hands", before calling the opposition "traitors".
The US and the Syrian opposition used the opportunity to state that Assad has no legitimacy. Which, shockingly, didn't go down too well with the Assad camp; Syria's Information Minister argued with the UN Secretary General before shouting: "Assad will not leave! Assad will not leave!" at the assembled press-pack. So, with the way things are going so far, it doesn't look like the negotiations – the first time the political opposition and the Syrian government have sat down together since the conflict began in 2011 – will be particularly fruitful.
Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised. After months of postponement and the last week of cat and mouse games about who would attend, the talks nearly didn't happen at all.
But as the struggle reaches levels of complexity and horror that nobody could have imagined three years ago, the opportunity to get the major players round a table to thrash out a solution has been welcomed by many. An activist from Aleppo, who was part of the initial uprising and protest against the regime, said he supported the talks: "I think they should come with a political solution, no matter how much it costs. For me, I will be happy to see peace again in Syria, even if al-Assad and the regime stays."
Last night the talks nearly became completely unstuck when the Syrian government's delegation was grounded in Greece after the Greek embargo on Syria prevented them from refuelling their plane. A few swift calls from the UN and they were on their way again.
This tragi-comedy began 18 months ago when the United States, Russia and a bunch of other countries got together to come up with some ideas about how to solve the conflict in Syria. They wrote some of those ideas down and released them as the "Geneva Communique", the basis of which was a six-point plan working toward a cessation of violence and steps toward a transitional government for the country. Neither representatives from Assad's regime nor the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) were present, though.
Since then, the international community has been trying to convince the warring parties to sit down and come up with a solution to the slaughter. Neither side were rushing to the negotiating table. In November, after several postponements, the date was set as the 22nd of January. However, that clashed with a major watch fair in Geneva, which was deemed too important to call off for the sake of putting an end to some minor humanitarian crisis, so the peace talks were moved to Montreux. The scheduling mishap was a sign of things to come.
The Western-backed SNC were encouraged to come to the talks or face a withdrawal of support from the UK and US, leaving them with little choice but to reverse a fundamental part of their constitution that bans talks with the Syrian regime. Fifty-eight members of the SNC voted to attend the talks, while 14 voted not to and two refused to vote at all. Then there was the other issue of the coalition itself already being in tatters after 44 members "withdrew" earlier this month in protest against the election of Ahmad al-Jarba as president. The "withdrawal" bloc was persuaded to return to SNC talks, but declined to vote.
A Kurdish YPG fighter in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Henry Langston)
One group that didn't get an invite to the talks were Syria's Kurdish citizens, who make up around 15 percent of the population and have for the past seven months been fighting with jihadist opposition groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the northeast of the country. In what looks like a pretty transparent "fuck you" to those who snubbed them, the Kurds declared autonomy from the Syrian state the day before talks were meant to start.
Within days of the SNC voting to attend, they threatened to withdraw when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to the party, announcing: "The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva II unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation." Why? Because Iran has been financially and militarily backing the Assad regime, much to the ire of the rebel forces, whose backing from foreign powers has been patchy at best.
Ban, who seems like a reasonable man, reassured the world that Tehran had made a commitment to be "positive and constructive". But when he sought Iran's reassurance that they saw the Geneva Communique as the starting point for negotiations, they refused to consent to the idea of a transitional government in Syria, so they were de-invited. Of course, the traditional way to deal with rejection is to act as aloof as possible, which is exactly what Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to do, telling the ISNA news agency: "Iran was not too keen on attending in the first place."
Besides Iran, the big war talks party is being attended by all the other key players in the Syrian crisis (US, Russia, Qatar and Kuwait), neighbouring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq) and a smattering of others for good measure, like Brazil and South Korea.
For their part, the Syrian regime has announced they will attend the talks, but stressed that only elections will see the removal of Bashar Assad as president. They have, however, expressed willingness to discuss a ceasefire agreement in Aleppo and the opening of humanitarian corridors into besieged areas. They're also keen to discuss the "fight against terrorism" within the country and will seek support from the international community to do so. Which might seem reasonable if it weren't for the fact that Assad believes everyone who opposes his regime is a "terrorist", and that he's allegedly been making deals with some of those terrorists.
A report released yesterday appears to show evidence of 11,000 detainees who'd been tortured – and were emaciated from starvation – before being executed; the images smuggled out by a regime defector. Timed to influence the direction of the talks, the legal panel of experts who examined the evidence claim the report shows that "there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government". This would amount to possible "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes", and make Assad's persistence that he must continue governing Syria increasingly untenable.
Despite their eventual and reluctant decision to attend the talks, the SNC has, over the last few months, lost the support of the major fighting groups inside Syria. The Islamic Front (IF), a coalition of the largest Islamist rebel groups, have withdrawn their support for the opposition's military arm, the Syrian Military Council, led by Salam Idriss.
In fact, the IF went as far as to steal a warehouse full of SMC supplies near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in northern Syria late last year. Zahran Alloush, the head of the IF’s military committee, said on Twitter that he was asking others in the group "to endorse putting the participants of both parties in Geneva II on a wanted list".
Essentially, the West's preferred opposition group hold little negotiating power, don't speak for many people on the ground and have little influence to enforce anything that might be agreed at the talks – in the unlikely situation that any agreement is reached, that is.
The US, the UK and the UN are all united in their determination to forge ahead and "give peace a chance". UK Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his support for the aims of Geneva II and the aims of the UN in backing the talks: "The UN Secretary General has made clear that the aim of the talks is to agree a political transition and an end to the conflict," he said.
ISIS fighters in northern Syria (photo by Medyan Dairieh)
Meanwhile, the IF and more moderate rebel forces are locked in fierce in-fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist Islamist groups who want to create an Islamic state across Iraq and Syria. The fighting between the groups has been so bad in the northern towns of Jarabulus and Manbij that thousands more Syrians have begun pouring over the border into Turkey to seek refuge from the beheadings and wanton violence.
In Raqqa, ISIS have retaken control of the city and ordered that music and cigarettes be banned, that women wear full Islamic dress and that men must shut their businesses and attend prayers, unless they want to be handed punishments in line with Sharia law.
ISIS, their closest rebel colleagues, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the groups of foreign fighters and unaffiliated mujahideen won't be represented at Geneva II. Were a solution to be brokered in the coming days, how to actually enforce it, with the militant jihadist element now endemic in northern Syria, would be a pretty tricky prospect.
There's a lot riding on Geneva II, mostly preventing the deaths of thousands more innocent Syrians. Unfortunately, it looks more likely that the talks will be remembered as another failed chance to stop that happening.
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