Syria Conference Roiled by Shouting Matches, Insults

(By Juan Cole)

The Geneva II negotiations at Montreux, Switerland, opened on a sour note on Wednesday. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem droned on interminably and charged the rebel forces with being “traitors” supported by bloodthirsty foreign powers.

Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down in favor of a transitional government acceptable to all sides.

The Syrian National Council representatives angrily denounced the regime.

It might have been cathartic. It wasn’t negotiations.

The talks, in any case, will begin Friday, behind closed doors, and the rhetoric may subside if there isn’t a public audience for it.

The most effective rebel fighting forces, some merely Muslim fundamentalist, others al-Qaeda affiliates, were not present. The “moderate” forces were there, but they control only a third of the liberated territory in the north. The Kurds, a tenth of the population, who have set up a mini-state of their own, were not invited.

This round of negotiations has to be seen as for the future. Some regime elements and some rebel ones are going to be involved, if things go as planned, in face to face negotiations. There may be little immediate fruit of such talks, but contacts will be made and ideas will be planted. At some point down the road it may be possible for the second tier people to reach out to one another.

Successful negotiations in my experience only take place when the two sides are tired of fighting and doubt they would gain anything further by more violence. I don’t mean this analysis to be glib or vague. I think you could develop a scale to measure how fatigued the two sides in a struggle are.

Thus, in the 1970s after 1973, Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy brought Egypt and Israel to the table, and ultimately Jimmy Carter closed the deal. That agreement was possible because Egypt’s military in the 1973 proved they were capable of using technology to cross the Suez Canal and get tanks to the other side, and couldn’t be deterred in doing so. Israel did not want further battles with Egypt a large country of (today) 82 million, and was willing to give back the Sinai if that would make peace. Had Egypt not acquitted itself so well in 1973, the Israelis might not have been ready for Camp David.

The Lebanese Civil war began in 1975 (I was in Beirut then). It raged until the late 1980s In 1989, Saudi Arabia brought the major leaders to the resort city of Taef and hammered out a deal among them. After 14 years of fierce fighting, the two sides had each made a lot of sacrifices, but para-military operations were increasingly fruitless.

The two (or actually more) sides to the Syria conflict are still at the beginning. They think more can be gained from fighting on the ground. They aren’t cynical or worn down enough, despite the horrifying number of deaths that have been taken so far and the displacement of nearly half the country. The regime elements believe they can survive the rebel onslaught. The rebels think the regime’s days are numbered.

In fact, Syria is a stalemate at the moment, with perhaps a slight advantage to the regime.

As UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said, the process got the two sides in the same room, and that is huge.

It will likely be months or years before a second huge step can be taken, of actually finding some compromises.

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Related video:

Euronews reports on the first day of Geneva II:

19 Responses

  1. There may be propaganda value in getting “two sides together in the same room” but what is the chance of compromise when the UN is so biased as to exclude Russia and Iran altogether but allow the US to announce a position?

    The best hope for agreement is usually in providing for all parties:
    1. a golden parachute for Assad’s loyalists and himself;
    2. continued access of Russia to its Mediterranean base;
    3. autonomy for Syrian Shiites, perhaps a province with DMZ
    (such as the northern coastal area by the naval base and the Kurds, and their population areas at the Lebanon border);
    4. democracy with provincial autonomy;
    5. demilitarization with UN enforcement including arms flows;
    6. massive humanitarian and economic aid but no military aid.

    It is hard to see the US/Israel/Saudis agreeing to any realistic plan, or the UN under US influence, but if they do not they eliminate the chance of any realistic peace agreement. If they did, they could set an example for the mirror situation in Iraq (such as a Sunni autonomous province with UN DMZ), and if they do not, is the intransigence of global and regional powers the core problem here? Perhaps the UN should first arrange a peace conference between the global and regional powers.

    • Autonomy for the Shiites, by which I suppose you mean Alawites? — but what about for the Kurds themselves? if not, why not?

      • Kurdish autonomy seems appropriate as well; these are suggestions for debate rather than developed solutions. Measures for the Kurds might be part of a separate Iraq-Iran-Turkey-Kurdish-PKK negotiation to resolve Turkey-PKK concerns.

      • There’s about 30K Lebanese Shiites living in several villages inside the Syrian border – so perhaps he’s referring to them.

        • There are about 200,000 “Twelver” Shi’ites in Syria.

          The Alawites are a sect of Shi’ism, however some consider the Alawite beliefs so different, they really are a separate religion altogether. They had been allied with the French colonial administration preceding Syrian independence.

          The Alawite population in Syria is largely concentrated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, especially in cities such as Latakia.

  2. While completing agreeing with your statement that successful negotiations only take place when the two sides are tired of fighting, I believe that another element should be added to this formula, namely whether the foreign backers of the conflict feel that they have achieved what they set out to do.

    Even if the uprising in Syria started as part of the “Arab Spring”, it is clear that right from the start both Saudi Arabia and the United States tried to use it to bring down the government of Bashar Asad to cut off the link between Iran and the Hezbollah. As early as the summer of 2011, a Saudi official said: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” link to theguardian.com
    Most Western countries shared that goal and they have not yet given up that goal as manifested by the opening remarks of Secretary John Kerry at Montreux.

    • If a foreign power has achieved what it set out to do, why would it engage in negotiations, instead of just enjoying its victory? It seems that negotiations happen when foreign powers feel that they cannot achieve what they set out to do without a negotiated settlement.

      “Even if the uprising in Syria started as part of the “Arab Spring”, it is clear that right from the start both Saudi Arabia and the United States tried to use it to bring down the government of Bashar Asad to cut off the link between Iran and the Hezbollah.”

      Actually, the United States was pursuing a peace initiative with the Assad regime between early 2009 and the middle of 2011, and even took domestic political hits from the Republicans for being slow to abandon it and side with the protesters/rebels.

      I can’t speak to Saudi Arabia, but it’s pretty obvious at this point that American and Saudi policy in the region has been going in different directions for some time.

  3. “Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down in favor of a transitional government acceptable to all sides.”

    Just as President Obama said Assad “must go” a couple of years ago and several times since. Empty talk. Assad is in a stronger position than he was then. Demands and threats with neither the means nor the will to back them up just makes us look impotent.

  4. It is hard to see, from my admittedly ignorant and non-diplomat perspective, how these negotiations can bear much fruit at all when Iran is excluded while countries not even peripheral to the conflict are included (Spain? South Africa?). I understand the long-standing US middle-school approach to diplomacy where you simply stomp the feet and refuse to talk to the enemy, but why were so many uninvolved and relatively powerless countries invited to this conference?

    • “why were so many uninvolved and relatively powerless countries invited to this conference?”

      To provide the semblance of international consensus and authority; and assuage the diplomatic ego of non-world powers.

      More importantly to me, why were the Kurds excluded. With Iraqi Kurds slowly developing a functioning autonomous region in the north of that country, Turkey’s internal turmoil and the Kurdish question central to the future of Syria, they should be involved. Why not?

      • My information was the Kurds were not excluded – it was the Kurdish Democratic Union Party leadership that wanted an independent delegation to represent their interests – but that the Americans demanded that Kurdish interests be represented via the Syrian National Coalition; the actual “Kurdish” that reportedly are attending are members of the foreign affairs committee of the Kurdish National Council.

        Syrian Kurds have shied away from the Syrian National Council in general due to its perceived closeness to the Turkish government.

        The Syrian Kurds have sought autonomy from the Assad regime and during the civil war Assad’s army has largely withdrawn from Kurdish areas to defend Damascus – leaving only two major garrisons within those Kurdish areas.

        Israel would likely give recognition to an independent Kurdish state – there are 100,000 Kurdish Jews that live in Jerusalem alone and the Kurds have sustained much of the same degree of persecution in Arab countries have the Jewish adherents during the last century. There are voices in Israel that support recognition by the Isreali government of an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria.

        The Syrian Kurds have the best opportunty for advancing their interests at Geneva II.

  5. might it help to have the actual belligerent parties identified as such at the conference ?

    On one side, clearly, is the al-Assad government.

    But the forces arrayed against them include parties heretofor unmentioned. Not the least being the purported honest broker who is setting the ground rules for the conference.

    If the idea is to get the two warring sides to talk to each other, where are Tamir Pardo and John Brennan ?

  6. ” ….the rhetoric may subside if there isn’t a public audience for it.”

    we hope this is the case, and probably it is the case. I admit I was a bit taken aback by Kerry’s belligerence, but I think it might have been intended for ‘the hardliners’ at home in the US. (my country, right or wrong)

    I read an interesting history of the Vietnam War recently, that postulated/demonstrated how successive US presidents escalated the war in response to pressure from the political opposition — to the ruination of many lives on both sides of the conflict, not to mention the environmental degradation of a beautiful region.
    link to amazon.com

    They were responding not to their own political base, or even to their own instincts, but to their political opponents. Their first priority was to stay in office.

    great piece, Juan, I especially liked your historical analogies and conclusion: “Successful negotiations only take place when the two sides are tired of fighting and doubt they would gain anything further by more violence.” That sounds about right.

  7. “…right up until they work.”

    Except empty talk, demands, and threats rarely if ever accomplish the goal if they are not followed up with action. Demands that are not backed up are just viewed as hollow, Joe, by friend and foe alike.

  8. I think that each side in the Syrian Civil War should try to reach an agreement with the other sides that will meet only their most minimal expectations with no intention of actually keeping to the agreement for very long. The point would be to lick their wounds and rebuild their military forces for now and prepare to relaunch to civil war at some point in the future when it appears that their side would have the military upper hand. Outsiders should be glad to get such an agreement because things on the ground could change until that some point in the future arrives. Something could happen in the mean time that would change the strategic balance in the contest. At that point one side may be able to impose its will on the battlefield quickly.
    It seems to me that each side in the civil war has it outside backers. I would hope that they can all recognize that at the moment the war seems to be stalemated so they should ask themselves, why not save the further destruction of the country for the moment which will have to be rebuilt no matter who wins.

    • Any examples, (maybe the Tamil situation? WW II is a case sui generis), where one side was able to impose its will on the battlefield and make it stick in a way that leads to long-term stability and governance by comity instead of force? Working examples of the suggested approach might be persuasive. All depends, of course, on what all the players in the infinitely complicated Game have in mind as the end point of the round. The Syrian conflict seems to me no more stalemated than the Western Front in 1917. It’s attrition, and screw the civilian non-combatants and their puny unaligned lives… And exhaustion of both sides seems to be the catalyst for that tenuous state of “peace” breaking out.

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