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Innocents Abroad

Getting to Geneva

US President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department May 19, 2011 in Washington, DC (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department on May 19, 2011, in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The peace talks proposed by the US and Russia, dubbed “Geneva II,” are at present heading for failure. While the Assad regime has shown interest in participating in the conference, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) failed at this week’s meeting in Istanbul to agree on whether they should attend this US- and Russia-brokered peace initiative. With the lifting of the EU arms embargo, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will see this more as an opportunity to fight on with more arms than to negotiate for peace.

Washington and Moscow also disagree on which international parties should attend. France, the United States and the SNC have rebuffed Moscow’s suggestion that Iran participate. President Assad also comes to the conference in a stronger position than many of his opponents had expected, with the capture of the strategic city of Qusair by his forces looking increasingly likely.

For any hope of success in this current environment, Geneva II needs to be re-calibrated. Four initiatives should be considered:

First, the US and Russia should clarify their respective positions on negotiations with Syria. Washington’s current policy of both affirming the need for a political solution and refusing to recognize President Assad’s participation in such negotiations is counter-productive, and only strengthens those on both sides of the conflict who seek to spoil a political process. Moscow, equally, needs to build more trust with the Syrian National Coalition and the militias fighting on the ground. Moscow has repeatedly stated that their interests are not tied exclusively to prolonging President Assad’s tenure, but Russia has continued to base most of its policy on sustaining the Assad regime’s rule. As a first step, Moscow should invite the SNC to open a diplomatic office in Russia.

Second, Assad should be pushed to negotiate in good faith. After two years of civil war, President Assad has made only cosmetic concessions to the opposition. However, if it is widely believed that the UK, France and the United States will increase their military assistance if the conference fails, this could be the necessary incentive for President Assad to enter into a constructive dialogue. For this dialogue to have any chance of success, Moscow needs to play a critical role in convincing the president to bring a substantive proposal for a political settlement to the conference.

Third, the Syrian opposition must become a credible negotiating partner. The SNC, despite its broad constituency, continues to struggle to establish its legitimacy on the ground. Der Spiegel recently reported that German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has concluded that fighters on the ground do not recognize the SNC as the legitimate political voice of the opposition. A negotiating team composed exclusively of SNC representatives would have very little credibility. For this team to have legitimacy, it will have to include representatives from the political groups that are not part of the SNC, as well as members of the FSA militias. Without it, opposition representatives will not be able to offer any credible concessions or guarantees.

Finally, while it would not be advisable for the United States to enter into direct negotiations with Iran on Syria at this stage, Iran should be invited to this conference. As one of the principal backers of the Assad regime, and as a participant in Syria’s civil war, Iran cannot be excluded. By excluding Tehran, the US and the SNC merely reinforce the impression that the conference is biased towards the opposition. Tehran’s participation is also needed to ensure that if an agreement is ever reached, all parties involved in the civil war will honor it.

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Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen is Scholar for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He regularly writes, teaches and consults on Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. His work primarily focuses on the regional and international politics of the Levant, but he frequently comments on the international relations of the Gulf and American national security policy. Follow Andrew on Twitter @abowen17

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