Peace talks aiming to bring Syria's bloody civil war to a conclusion finally began yesterday in Switzerland, the land of peace and harmony. The conference officially 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 some of the nations involved of having "Syrian blood on their hands" before calling the rebels "traitors." The US and the Syrian opposition used the opportunity to state that Bashar al-Assad had no legitimacy—which, shockingly, didn't go down too well with the Assad camp—while Syria's information minister argued with the UN secretary-general before shouting, "Assad will not leave! Assad will not leave!" at the assembled pack of reporters. So it doesn't look like the negotiations—the first time the opposition and the Syrian government have formally sat down together since the conflict began in 2011—will be particularly fruitful.
As the struggle in Syria reaches levels of complexity and horror that nobody could have imagined three years ago, the opportunity to get the major players around 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," he told the Media Line. "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 refueling 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 Communiqué, the basis of which was a six-point plan working toward a cessation of violence and a transitional government. Neither representatives from Assad's regime nor the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) were present at that meeting, however.
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 was rushing to the negotiating table, but in November, after several postponements, the date was set as January 22. However, that clashed with a major watch fair in Geneva, which meant there wouldn't be enough hotels rooms for participants to stay in, so the peace talks were moved to Montreux. The scheduling mishap was a sign of things to come.
The Western-backed SNC were told that if they didn't come to the talks support from the UK and US would be withdrawn, leaving them with little choice but to reverse the rather 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. The coalition was already in tatters after 44 members quit it earlier this month in protest what they called "random decision-making mechanisms" on the part of the SNC's leadership. (That group 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 was Syria's Kurds, 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 country's northeast. 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 the talks, 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 [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation." 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.
Ki-moon 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 Communiqué as the starting point for negotiations, they refused to agree to the idea of a transitional government in Syria, so they were de-invited. The traditional way to deal with rejection is to act as aloof as possible, which is exactly what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to do, telling the ISNA news agency, "Iran was not too keen on attending in the first place."
That leaves the other key players in the Syrian crisis (the US, Russia, Qatar, and Kuwait), neighboring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq), and a smattering of others (Brazil and South Korea) at the negotiating table.
For their part, the Syrian regime has announced they will attend the talks, but stressed that only elections will see the removal of 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 excited 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 Assad didn't apparently believe that everyone who opposes his regime is a "terrorist." (Oddly enough, he's allegedly been making deals with some of those terrorists.)
Weakening the regime's position is a report, released this week by a group of war crimes prosecutors, that claims that the government tortured, starved, and eventually executed 11,000 detainees. Evidence of the killings was smuggled out by a military police photographer who defected from the regime, and the relase of the report appears timed to influence the peace talks. The prosecutors say 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 position that he continue governing Syria increasingly untenable.
The other side of the negotiating table has its own problems. 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 (SMC). 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 last month. 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."
In short, the West's preferred opposition group holds little real power in the country, doesn't speak for many people on the ground, and has little influence to enforce anything that might be agreed at the talks—and that's assuming that any agreement is reached, which is looking unlikely.
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, for instance, expressed his support for the aims of Geneva II. "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 combat with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist groups who want to create an Islamic state that combines Iraq and Syria. The fighting between the groups has been so bad in the northern towns like Jarabulus and Manbij that thousands of Syrians have been pouring over the border into Turkey to seek refuge from the beheadings and wanton violence.
In the northern city of 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, and a successful agreement betwen the parties could prevent the deaths of more innocent Syrians. Unfortunately, unless something dramatic happens, it looks like these talks will be remembered as just another failed attempt to broker peace in the Middle East.