Seek­ing con­text for mean­ing­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions

DR. MURIEL ASSE­BURG, Ger­man In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Se­cu­rity Af­fairs (SWP)

Turkish Review - - FORUM -

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


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