The Elusive Promise of Geneva II

UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the eve of the Geneva II conference. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the eve of the Geneva II conference. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

So we are finally here. The long and torturous road to the Geneva II peace conference appears to have found its way to the picturesque Swiss town of Montreux on the northeast shore of Lake Geneva.

Representatives from more than thirty countries plan to attend what is increasingly looking like a shotgun wedding. The Syrian opposition—in the guise of the Syrian National Coalition—only made the decision to attend on Saturday, and the sudden UN invitation to Iran came close to sinking the whole thing. The regime appears happier to attend, but while the opposition and its allies talk about transitional arrangements, its focus is strictly on combating the perennial issue of “terrorism.”

With two reluctant sides sitting down in Switzerland with agendas that appear impossible to reconcile, it is no wonder expectations are low.

But there are some reasons to be positive. Geneva II represents the fruits of the US and Russia working cooperatively on Syria, in stark contrast to Russia’s regular blocks on the United Nations Security Council. The Russians are also in a friendly mood in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics and may well be willing to bend somewhat on their Syria policy if they fear isolation and negative press otherwise.

Another positive indicator is the involvement of UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. He earned credibility as an important player in the Taif Agreement that brought an end to the Lebanese civil war. Nonetheless, he has received criticism from both sides of the conflict and will need to deploy a lifetime of diplomatic experience to squeeze any success out of the warring parties.

There is evidence, albeit limited, that the regime in Damascus will relieve besieged areas if enough pressure is generated. Most recently, this happened with the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. However, observers warned that many of the civilians released from the besieged suburbs of Damascus last year subsequently vanished into the Syrian prison system.

Talk of a ceasefire in Aleppo has to be a good thing, even though previous military truces have not resulted in a genuine end to the shooting. December saw Syria’s largest city under almost constant barrel-bomb attack, so any respite would be an improvement.

Finally, despite the different approaches taken by the Syrian regime and the opposition, there may be common ground in dealing with the symptoms of the conflict rather than the cause. Humanitarian access into Syria, agreed to by the UN Security Council in a Presidential Statement in October, could finally be actioned in the form of freer permissions to convoys to cross frontlines, the creation of humanitarian corridors, or even official permission for organizations to work unhindered in both rebel- and regime-controlled areas.

However, there is serious cause for concern that the peace conference will be a failure that has wider ramifications. For example, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has already been sounding out the notion of running for another term; if talks fall apart and the breakdown is pinned on the opposition it could provide the perfect moment for Assad to launch his 2014 campaign.

A more nefarious danger is the regime’s skill in using delaying tactics and obfuscation as a means of refocusing attention to areas of the conflict that they control. The government’s agreement to give up chemical weapon stocks to avoid international action, only for it to continue to deploy heavy artillery, is a good example of such an Orwellian approach.

Geneva II could therefore see the launch of a diplomatic process that is completely disconnected from events on the ground. Such are the low expectations around the conference the critical question could be over who is better at managing failure.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.


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