Friday, August 1, 2014
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The Enemy in Syria

MADRID – The Geneva II Middle East peace conference, to be held on January 22, will take place against a backdrop of singularly appalling numbers: Syria’s brutal civil has left an estimated 130,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees registered in neighboring countries, and some four million more internally displaced.

The stakes at the conference are thus exceptionally high, both for Syria and for its neighbors, which are straining against severe destabilization. Lebanon has taken in more than 800,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan and Turkey have more than a half-million each. Iraq has received more than 200,000, and Egypt has nearly 150,000. These figures, a result of three years of civil war, are simply inacceptable.

What seemed like a new phase of the Arab revolts in early 2011 has become the worst conflict so far this century. Meanwhile, the international community has been disastrously divided. Since the fighting began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had Russia’s explicit international support. But while Russia’s strategy, from the outset, has been coherent and well-defined, the West’s has not. The United States and the European Union have remained hesitant, establishing no clear aims regarding the conflict. This vacillation contrasts starkly with the position taken by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which have steadfastly supported the Sunni opposition to Assad, and that of Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which have been equally resolute in supporting the regime.

Syria’s civil war has crystallized the complex geopolitical problem that has long characterized the region: the Sunni-Shia cleavage. The sectarian divide underlies the latent struggle for regional control between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The radicalization of Syria’s opposition, however, has complicated the situation even further, nesting one problem within another – much like Russian matryoshka dolls. The Sunnis are divided, with the more moderate forces opposing the radical Al Qaeda affiliates. In fact, in just the last few days, internecine clashes have left more than 700 dead.

The turn for the worse followed last year’s chain of events, which started with the United Nations’ accusation that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons and ended with the US-Russia brokered agreement to destroy the regime’s chemical arsenal (thereby avoiding a poorly planned and ill-timed Western military intervention). Indeed, it is now clear that the agreement’s chief side effect has been to breathe new life into the regime, thereby frustrating the hope of the more moderate rebel groups and allowing Al Qaeda-linked forces to gather support and strength within the opposition.

The consequences of this radicalization are spreading throughout the region and worldwide. Syria is now a problem for global security. The main concern now seems to have shifted to defeating Al Qaeda, rather than Assad. The region is in turmoil, and the presence of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda is an enormous risk for everyone. Indeed, ten years after the start of the war in Iraq, groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have taken control of key Iraqi cities, including the symbolically important city of Fallujah.

The Geneva II conference offers an opportunity to address these dangers. But risks abound. We still do not know who will represent the Syrian opposition, or if the Syrian National Council ‒ which demands that Assad step down unconditionally ‒ will even be there. The regime, for its part, wants the conference to focus on combating the growing extremist presence within the opposition, which it refers to generically as “terrorist.”

Nor is it known whether Iran will participate. As a key actor in the conflict, Iran should have an important role in its resolution. And, despite the resistance of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni opposition, the US and the EU currently seem more inclined to accept Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva II negotiations, especially now that advances are being made in the implementation of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program concluded in November.

The top priority at the conference must be to secure a ceasefire. This is the only way to return to what should be the international community’s main concern: ending the suffering of the Syrian population, restoring their country to them, and offering them the chance to construct the peaceful future they deserve.

Beyond the geopolitical risks that Syria’s civil war has created, the suffering of millions of human beings cries out for an end to the violence. After three years of war, a ceasefire is currently the best path to peace. For that reason, Geneva II is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

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  1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree with Mr. Solana.
    The peace conference has very high significance beyond the actual issue at hand.
    This is the first major international conflict where a new negotiating and decision making framework and "etiquette" could be introduced.
    Today we all exist in a global, interconnected and interdependent world. The previous "lobby based", "corridor" diplomacy, decisions "brokered" by "more important" representatives of the "more important nations" is over.
    Global world means equality, each and every individual and nation is a single cogwheel in the huge, mutually interdependent machinery.
    Thus when a conflict arises the negotiations and decision making have to reflect this new reality.
    Only a wide, equal round table setting, moderated independently according to specific rules, can achieve such agreements all parties would be prepared to accept, especially if all directly and indirectly affected parties are invited.
    In this case Iran simply cannot be dismissed as they are deeply involved in the conflict regardless of some of the other participants think about them.
    That the participants are mortal enemies does not matter. In fact in the real world there are no "friends" as the recent spying revelations show very clearly, nobody trusts anybody, we all only care for our own self benefits.
    If we acknowledge this it is already a good start.
    We do not need to love each other, we will not have to become friends or allies, all we have to do is to find and grab a mutual goal, purpose we can all accept and build on, especially as in today's global system we can only survive mutually together.
    It will be a hard and it will be a long and gradual learning process, but how the Geneva II conference starts and unfolds can have very significant bearing on future negotiations and action.

  2. Commentedhari naidu

    Breakup of Syria is not on the cards principally because US strategic interest in the region opposes it. Assad may (still)be the solution - even as an interim government. Leverage in Geneva II negotiations is more or less in Lavrov's (Russia) hands to invoke and even force Assad to compromise.

    Don't forget US-Russian interests are coincidentally not colliding but reinforcing strategic demand for a ceasefire and interim coalition to stabilize and contain its present boarders and sovereignty.

    Unforeseen is the role of (absent) Iran which is critical to any solution with Assad - perhaps forcing the hands of Kerry ( in spite of hawks in US Congress!).

  3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Although the Geneva II conference "offers an opportunity" to address the many pressing issues that affect Syria and the wider region, it is very difficult to see how tangible progress can be made.
    The two warring parties have irreconcilable objectives. The regime says, Assad's stepping down is out of the question, while the opposition has made it clear that he must have no role in the new transitional government. Even if a political agreement is reached, it will be extremely difficult to translate words into action, given that the talks are of no relevance to many of the rebel groups fighting on the ground.
    Assad, who had reaped military gains with the help of Iran's Quds force and Lebanon's Shia militants Hezbollah and basked in diplomatic success, thanks to the chemica weapons deal brokered by Russia, has become haughty. An uncompromising statement said his representatives would be sent to the peace talks to pursue "the Syrian people's demands, first and foremost eliminating terrorism".
    Who are the Syrian people? Obviously the Sunni majority is not counted. Those who fight to overthrow him are dubbed as "terrorists". His government has said it will not negotiate with "terrorists" and "hand over power to anyone".
    "Our people will not let anyone steal their exclusive right to decide their future and their leadership," the ministry warned. Again, Assad spoke of his people, who are no others than the Alawites and other ethnic minorities, that support him. As national reconciliation is no longer realistic, the "Geneva II" should in fact focus on Syria's partition. This will satisfy both Iran and Russia, that want to keep him in power. The Sunnis would have a chance to break away and be on their own.

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