The Syrian conflict

Mendacious diplomacy

As the war in Syria rolls on and civilians continue to die, caught in the deadly crossfire of a multi-front conflict, the Syrian military and political opposition – bowing to intense international diplomatic pressure – has been dragged into political negotiations that lack the minimum conditions for success. Essay by Burhan Ghalioun, former chairman of the Syrian opposition Transitional National Council

In the absence of any respect for previous commitments or any clear international assurances, when the legal and political framework is so ambiguous and Russia is imposing diktats, it was only natural that the negotiations in Astana and Geneva should turn out to be manoeuvrings, the main purpose of which was to weaken the position of the opposition and secure the positions of the regime and its allies.

So instead of giving Syrians new hope that a political solution that meets their minimum aspirations can be reached, this round of sterile negotiations has added to their frustration. Scepticism is deepening that future negotiations in Astana or Geneva can ever produce the results Syrians are waiting for: an end to the war of aggression and the beginning of a real transition process, preparing for a new Syria where peace, brotherhood, justice and democracy ultimately prevail.

These negotiations have highlighted an array of facts that threaten to undermine the whole political process, if they have not done so already. The most important of them are:

The aim of these negotiations was not to meet the aspirations of Syrians, guarantee their sovereignty over their territory, restore their national unity, or guarantee their fundamental rights to dignity, just governance and equality before the law. It was to legitimise the military and political regional gains achieved by the members of the anti-revolutionary alliance and their internal and external agents – and thereby to exacerbate the struggle to divide the country into zones of influence.

Wounded girl being carried from the rubble by a member of the White Helmets in the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, in February 2017 (photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images)
The destruction is ongoing: "scepticism is deepening that future negotiations in Astana or Geneva can ever produce the results Syrians are waiting for: an end to the war of aggression and the beginning of a real transition process, preparing for a new Syria where peace, brotherhood, justice and democracy ultimately prevail," writes Ghalioun

As a result, the Assad regime and its allies still insist on ignoring U.N. resolutions, including those of the Security Council, evading their implementation while playing for time and attempting to resolve the conflict through military means.

The agenda for the negotiations, which ignores the confidence-building measures envisaged by the Security Council, demonstrates the extent of their contempt for the lives of Syrians and their tragic plight. They have consummately failed to end random bombing, release detainees, break the starvation blockade, or stop forced displacement and demographic cleansing operations for strategic objectives in several areas.

The question of political transition is played down

Striking in this respect has been the dishonest role played by the United Nations, represented by U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura. The envoy has long ceased to be a mediator and instead has become a reserve negotiator for Russia and its clients in Tehran and Damascus.

Instead of adhering to the agenda that he himself had drafted, which was the basis of the invitation sent to the parties, he succumbed to pressure and agreed to move the question of terrorism from the Astana agenda to the agenda for the political negotiations. He did this at a time when there was hardly any disagreement, either in Syria or internationally, on how to deal with the question of terrorism.

The aim was to play down the question of political transition which is at the core of the negotiations, as he himself had previously declared, and to turn it into one of many questions. The Assad regime and the international community would then be absolved of all responsibility and the inevitable failure of the talks would be pinned on all parties equally.

In the same vein and for the same purpose, equal weight was given to all the points on the agenda, the chronological sequence for discussing them was abandoned and the points were put to debate in parallel.

Staffan de Mistura meeting the Iranian delegation prior to the first round of negotiations in Astana
Reserve negotiator for Moscow, Tehran and Damascus: "instead of adhering to the agenda that he himself had drafted, which was the basis of the invitation sent to the parties, he succumbed to pressure and agreed to move the question of terrorism from the Astana agenda to the agenda for the political negotiations. He did this at a time when there was hardly any disagreement, either in Syria or internationally, on how to deal with the question of terrorism"

Finally the Moscow and Cairo platforms were imposed on the opposition as independent parties in order to intensify the pressure on the delegation from the Supreme Committee and force it to offer more concessions, so as to rehabilitate the regime and deprive Syrians of real political transition.

Geneva 4′s lack of progress undoubtedly stemmed from the opposition′s weakness, its susceptibility to manipulation and the pressure exerted on the Supreme Committee to accept representatives closer to Moscow and to others than they were to the demands of the people. Yet, many other factors were also involved – first and foremost, the disarray in the new U.S. administration and its inability so far to elaborate a clear vision for Middle East policy in general and for Syrian policy in particular, which has left all other stakeholders in a state of suspense and anticipation. Another factor is that Tehran and Assad continue to gamble on a war of attrition against the armed opposition groups, after losing the initiative in several places. Behind that lies the rivalry between Russia and Iran over how to manage the conflict and what the agenda should be.

The various opposition groups, especially the representatives of the Moscow and Cairo platforms, also have a major responsibility to overcome the various pressures imposed on them by their sponsors and to reach a formula for working with the Supreme Committee, conducting negotiations as a single team.

Failing either a possible military solution or political resolution to the benefit of any of the rival parties – Syrian or international – only two options remain:

1. A settlement based on the assumption that the opposition can be weakened, even through negotiations, to such an extent that it is forced to accept integration into the regime. That means the existing dictatorial regime would survive and the opposition, or part of it, would be reintegrated into the regime, with a few cosmetic embellishments to its constitutional and political facade.

2. To reintegrate elements that have abandoned the current tyrannical regime into a new democratic and pluralist system. This would allow Syria and Syrians to start a new phase, completely detached from the practices, beliefs and bloody ethics of the old government.In my opinion, the pressure put on the Cairo and Moscow platforms to remain outside a united opposition delegation under the umbrella of the Supreme Committee had only one purpose – to maximise the chances of the first option, at the expense of the second.

Traces of the poison gas attack carried out last week by the Syrian regime near Idlib (photo: picture-alliance/A.A./A. Dagul
Remembering the words of Ban Ki-Moon, former U.N. Secretary-General from 2013: "For months now I have said that the confirmed use of chemical weapons in Syria required a firm, united and decisive response. Tonight, the international community has delivered. A red light for one form of weapons does not mean a green light for others. This is not a license to kill with conventional weapons. All the violence must stop. All the guns must fall silent." Last week it was the Americans who took decisive military action in response to Assad's poison gas attack on civilians near Idlib. Can the United Nations under its new leader, Antonio Guterres, now step up to the mark?

A plea to the current U.N. Secretary-General

By failing to observe U.N. resolutions or ceasefire agreements and by continuing to violate civilian rights, whether by using barrel bombs, blockading or besieging towns with the intent to cause starvation, or by refusing to free detainees, the Assad regime and its allies are in direct defiance of the U.N. secretary-general. Moreover, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura appears to have become little more than an adjunct negotiator: an advocate for the Russian negotiator and an executor of Russia's political agenda.

If Antonio Guterres does not want to lose credibility early in his term, he must intervene to protect the negotiations and ensure that they are independent of the rival and the neutral parties. The time has come for the U.N. secretary-general to bring an end to the negotiating fiasco that has been going on for six years – with no result and nothing gained – and to launch a new initiative that forces each party to live up to its responsibilities.

Indeed, faced with states that are unwilling to react, refuse to compromise and continue to pursue interests that are both illegitimate and illegal, it is Guterres′ duty and his responsibility to act decisively. Turning a blind eye to the destruction of a nation and the forced displacement and mass murder of its people will only compound this heinous chapter of world history.

Burhan Ghalioun

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Burhan Ghalioun is a French Syrian professor of sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 2011 until May 2012 he was chairman of the Syrian opposition Transitional National Council (TNC).

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