Syria talks open with clash on As­sad’s fate

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The clash be­tween Wash­ing­ton and its ad­ver­saries over whether an end to Syria’s war can be achieved with­out the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad was on full dis­play last week as a long-de­layed in­ter­na­tional peace con­fer­ence got un­der­way in Switzer­land.

Mo­ments into the Geneva II con­fer­ence, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry pushed home the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s view that there is “no way pos­si­ble in the imag­i­na­tion” that Mr. As­sad could ever “re­gain the le­git­i­macy to gov­ern in Syria” — draw­ing an ex­pected, acer­bic re­buke from a del­e­ga­tion rep­re­sent­ing Mr. As­sad.

That the gap in think­ing — af­ter nearly three years of war and diplo­matic ma­neu­ver­ing by the U.S., Rus­sia and other pow­ers — was so clearly out in the open seemed to prove the as­ser­tions of sea­soned ob­servers that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion may be in over its head in Switzer­land.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials for months have said the crux of the peace con­fer­ence is to build from the ba­sic frame­work of an agree­ment more than a year ago by Wash­ing­ton, Moscow and oth­ers with a hand in Syria’s war, in­clud­ing Iraq, Saudi Ara­bia, France, China and Bri­tain. The Geneva Com­mu­nique essen­tially called for the cre­ation of a tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment in Syria, a step many be­lieve would fore­shadow Mr. As­sad’s re­moval from power.

Re­gard­less of such spec­u­la­tion, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has praised this week’s con­fer­ence as a vi­tal step for­ward, ar­gu­ing that even the most ba­sic talks could be­gin to ease the vi­o­lence grip­ping Syria, de­spite sober­ing as­sess­ments from an­a­lysts who say any kind of sub­stan­tial deal re­mains a long way off.

“I would dis­agree with those that are say­ing that this is meant to fail, but I would agree that this process will not lead prob­a­bly to a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment in the next few weeks,” said Philippe Ler­oux-Martin, a re­searcher for the Fu­ture of Diplo­macy Project of the John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard Univer­sity.

Mr. Ler­oux-Martin com­pared the con­fer­ence to ini­tial at­tempts dur­ing the early 1990s to push for an end to the eth­nic and civil war that was tear­ing through the for­mer Yu­goslavia. He noted that there were “four un­suc­cess­ful peace plans be­tween 1992 and 1995” be­fore a ma­jor agree­ment was reached at a con­fer­ence in Day­ton, Ohio.

“Any­one could say they were mean­ing­less, but the fact is they all nour­ished sub­stan­tial pro­vi­sions of the Day­ton Peace Ac­cords,” said Mr. Ler­oux-Martin, who served as a mem­ber of a team of le­gal ad­vis­ers over­see­ing as­pects of the agree­ment.

With the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group say­ing that nearly half of Syria’s roughly 22 mil­lion cit­i­zens have lost their homes and more than 100,000 have lost their lives in the war, Mr. Ler­oux-Martin added that the peace con­fer­ence’s suc­cess might be mea­sured best by the ex­tent to which the di­vided sides at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble agree to set ground rules by which hu­man­i­tar­ian aid can flow into the war zone.

Ni­cholas Burns, who served as a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, went a step fur­ther, say­ing that “at the very least, if the Rus­sians and the Amer­i­cans can agree with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to a tem­po­rary cease-fire, at least in parts of the coun­try, and to let the United Na­tions and refugee aid agen­cies in to give help to peo­ple, that is at least a place where they’ve got a start.”

But Mr. Burns, who made his com­ments Wed­nes­day on NPR, also of­fered a sober­ing read of the con­fer­ence as a whole, as­sert­ing that he does not be­lieve “that early progress is go­ing to be pos­si­ble.”

“The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, the Syr­ian rebels, Rus­sia, Iran, the United States, they’re all dis­united,” said Mr. Burns, who heads the Fu­ture of Diplo­macy Project. “They’re all feuding with each other.” Oth­ers were even more cir­cum­spect. “The maxim that any di­a­logue is bet­ter than no di­a­logue — ‘to jaw-jaw is al­ways bet­ter than to war-war’ — may pro­duce some ben­e­fit, al­though there are times when bet­ter un­der­stand­ing does lead to even more hos­til­ity,” Mid­dle East an­a­lyst An­thony Cordes­man wrote in an as­sess­ment pub­lished Wed­nes­day by the Center for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

“As­sad will not step down, the op­po­si­tion will re­main di­vided and con­tinue to be­come more ex­treme, and out­side states will be as di­vided in their goals as be­fore the meet­ing,” Mr. Cordes­man wrote. He ar­gued that Iran, which the United Na­tions dis­in­vited from the peace talks just hours be­fore they be­gan, likely will sup­port the As­sad gov­ern­ment “with even more ded­i­ca­tion.”

“Key Arab Gulf states — Kuwait, Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar, and the UAE — will con­tinue to fund vi­o­lent Sunni Is­lamist fac­tions, and truly dan­ger­ous ex­treme move­ments like al Qaeda and [the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria] will con­tinue to gain fund­ing and vol­un­teers,” he said. “The spillover of vi­o­lence into Le­banon and Iraq will con­tinue, and likely will ex­pand.”

Mr. Kerry may have had such skep­ti­cism in mind in his open­ing re­marks when, de­spite his con­fronta­tional words to­ward Mr. As­sad, he made a call for calm and pleaded with all par­ties in­volved to “find a way for­ward.”

“The prospects for real progress ap­peared to dim when Mr. As­sad’s top diplo­mat lashed out at U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon af­ter Mr. Ban pushed him to wrap up his re­marks.

“You live in New York, I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syr­ian ver­sion here in this fo­rum. Af­ter three years of suf­fer­ing, this is my right,” said Syr­ian For­eign Min­is­ter Walid al-Moallem.

Mr. Ban, act­ing as moder­a­tor, then asked Mr. al-Moallem to “please re­frain from in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric,” spark­ing fur­ther ex­changes over the for­eign min­is­ter’s speak­ing time.

Mo­ments later, ten­sions ap­peared to ease when Mr. al-Moallem closed his speech and drew laugh­ter from his del­e­ga­tion by telling Mr. Ban that “Syria al­ways keeps its prom­ises.”

But it was Mr. al-Moallem’s di­rect com­ments to Mr. Kerry that seemed to linger.

“Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to con­fer or with­draw the le­git­i­macy of a pres­i­dent, a con­sti­tu­tion, or a law, ex­cept for the Syr­i­ans them­selves,” the for­eign min­is­ter said, ac­cord­ing to the Tehran Times.

The claim could not have stood in starker con­trast to Mr. Kerry’s as­ser­tions that “we need to deal with re­al­ity here,” and that “mu­tual con­sent, which is what has brought us here, for a tran­si­tion gov­ern­ment means that that gov­ern­ment can­not be formed with some­one that is ob­jected to by one side or the other.”

“That,” he said, “means that Bashar As­sad will not be part of that tran­si­tion gov­ern­ment.”


Haitham al-Maleh, se­nior mem­ber of the Syr­ian Na­tional Coali­tion, Syria’s main po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion group, sits alone dur­ing the first day of peace talks in Mon­treux, Switzer­land. The Syr­ian peace talks be­gan with a clash over Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s fu­ture.

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