Seeking context for meaningful negotiations
DR. MURIEL ASSEBURG, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
In January and February 2014, two rounds of meetings brought together Syrian regime and opposition representatives in Montreux and Geneva. Based on the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, the parties were supposed to work toward agreements that would end the violence in the war-torn country, achieve access for humanitarian aid and the release of all political prisoners, and initiate a “Syrian-led transition.” To this end, a transitional body was to be formed “on the basis of mutual consent” with “full executive powers” and the ultimate goal of establishing a democratic multi-party system and accountability for acts committed during the present conflict. Yet the talks did not produce the slightest breakthrough.
In response, efforts for arming and training the so-called “moderate rebels” have picked up once more among the “Group of Friends of the Syrian People,” a loose alliance established in February 2012 bringing together some 60 states and regional organizations supporting the Syrian opposition. This support would supposedly empower the moderates vis-à-vis the regime forces and Jihadist fighters alike, help to tilt the balance on the ground, and thus put the regime under pressure to seriously pursue a negotiated outcome. Such arguments, however, are flawed. Rather, a negotiated solution is unlikely to occur unless all relevant regional and international players agree on making it the only game in town -- and contribute their share. At the same time, combatants who wield considerable influence on the ground need to be engaged to secure humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law.
The deliberations in Switzerland did not generate much more than an, at times heated, exchange of wellknown and mutually exclusive positions: Opposition representatives insisted on the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and on initiating a transition process led by a fully empowered body. Only at the end of the second round of talks did they signal that they might be willing to forgo the ouster of Assad as a pre-condition. The regime’s speakers stressed the country’s sovereignty. Consequently, Syrians should determine their future independently from foreign intervention and choose their own leadership in elections, which are envisioned for July this year. (There is, of course, nothing like democratic and competitive elections under the current regime. Even though the Ba’ath party’s monopoly on power has been abrogated in the current constitution, free, fair and pluralistic competition is just not possible as long as opposition representatives are persecuted by the regime’s security services. In addition, a draft law on presidential elections presented in mid-March to Syria’s Parliament stipulates that candidates must have maintained continuous, permanent residence in the country for a period of no less than 10 years, thus excluding many potential opposition candidates who have fled the fighting.) At the same time, they emphasized that the main challenge would be to fight “terrorism,” a notion applied to all armed opposition actors -but extending also to members of the opposition delegation.
No success was registered on the issue of humanitarian access. Rather, the regime tried to circumvent a principled stance on such access by offering the evacuation of women, children and the elderly -- for example from Homs’ besieged old city. Nor was there any progress toward a general armistice. Local cease-fires were agreed in the aftermath of the Geneva talks in some places, where and if rebels were ready to surrender. In other places, such as Aleppo, fighting was pursued with full force while the talks went on. The deep mistrust and the lack of readiness on both sides to engage in confidence building was exemplified by the approach to the issue of political prisoners, the only point where some progress was registered: Rather than the sides agreeing to set prisoners free, they settled on handing over lists of political prisoners they asked the other side to release -- lists which are set to be a
COMBATANTS WHO WIELD CONSIDERABLE INFLUENCE ON THE GROUND NEED TO BE ENGAGED TO SECURE HUMANITARIAN ACCESS