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Should we go to Geneva?

On May 7th, 2013, the United States and Russia agreed to hold an international conference to end the war and “prevent the dismantlement of Syria”. The agreement was announced by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, after talks in Moscow, before which Kerry met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

The scheduled conference aims to revive the Geneva agreement, also known as the “Geneva Communiqué'”, reached in June 2012 but has not been put into effect due to the unresolved issue of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad’s fate.


'...participating in the Geneva Conference is an opportunity that we should not miss'On May 7th, 2013, the United States and Russia agreed to hold an international conference to end the war and “prevent the dismantlement of Syria”. The agreement was announced by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, after talks in Moscow, before which Kerry met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

How did the American-Russian meeting come about?

The scheduled conference aims to revive the Geneva agreement, also known as the “Geneva Communiqué'”, reached in June 2012 but has not been put into effect due to the unresolved issue of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad’s fate.

Kerry believed that the super-power had “important mutual interests” that drove it to seek a political settlement and that the alternative to this settlement is the country getting closer to the edge of the cliff,” and “the potential disintegration of Syria.”

The question is: Why did the Americans and Russians choose to go to the Geneva communique’ at this moment, and refer to it as the “road map” for the solution in Syria? There are various reasons that seem to have led, individually or collectively, to the Russian American meeting on the Geneva agreement.

The first of these reasons is to neutralize the pressures on U.S. President Barack Obama to militarily intervene in the crisis. These pressures primarily stem from the leaders of the Republican Party, while polls suggest that the American majority is opposed to American military involvement.

Originally, the political option is consistent with President Obama’s vision of the concept of multilateralism in international work. We must also keep in mind that Obama was elected the first time based on his promise of peace, bringing the troops home and addressing the economic challenges caused by years of war.

The second reason, which can now be assumed, is that both the United States and its Western allies have realised that the geopolitical environment of the conflict has become more complex, and that the situation in the country leans towards multilateral engagement, which is difficult to control. This may put Syria itself on the road to disintegration and fragmentation.

The third reason for the American-Russian meeting over the Geneva communique’ is the lack of stability in direction of the military scene on the ground, as the balance of power fluctuates in a manner that makes it difficult to determine where the various parties stand.

As for the fourth reason, it is embodied by the U.S. fear that certain radical forces may become powerful and influential in Syria, and they may use their newfound influence in order to strengthen their roles in other countries and regions, including the United States itself.

Based on this, we can understand the U.S’s keenness to go for a political settlement option. But, of course, it wouldn’t be true to say that Kerry’s meetings in Moscow were just an American manoeuvre.

Elements of the Geneva Communique’

Let us examine what the Geneva communique’ is. In June 2012, the former International and Arab envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, described the communique as “an agreement on a framework for a political transition, controlled by the Syrians.”

This statement was made about a meeting in the UN headquarters in Geneva, attended by the foreign ministers of the Security Council’s permanent member states; Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey, as well as the UN Secretary-General, the Arab League Secretary-General, the international special envoy to Syria and the EU representative for foreign affairs and security policies.

The Geneva communique’ notes, in its fourth article, that the work group agreed on a “framework and guidelines for a political transition process that meet the legitimate expectations of the Syrian people.” The fifth article lays out the guide for the transition process in the following terms:

  • Provides a future perspective that all parties in Syria may agree upon
  • Determines clear steps to be taken, according to a timeline, towards achieving this perspective
  • Can be implemented in an atmosphere that guarantees everyone’s safety and is characterised by stability and tranquillity
  • Can be reached quickly without any more bloodshed and is credible

As for the steps to achieve the transition process, they were determined as follows:

  • The formation of a transitional governing body, enabling it to create a neutral environment for the political process to take place, and it must exercise full executive authority. Such a body may include members from the current regime and opposition, as well as other groups and must be formed based on mutual consent
  • The Syrian people will decide the fate of the country, and all levels and components of society must be able to participate in the national dialogue
  • The current constitutional and legal system may be reconsidered, and the results of the constitutional formulations presented for consensus
  • Once the new constitutional system is established, it is necessary to prepare for free, fair and plural elections to fill the vacancies of the institutions and bodies established.

The document also said that the members of the labour groups oppose “any increased militarisation of the conflict”, and urge the different sides to prepare to provide “effective negotiators” to quickly reach a settlement “with a Syrian leadership”. Moreover, the process must be comprehensive in order to hear the opinions of “all sectors of the Syrian society” in regards to the political settlement, leading to the transition process.

Without the need for more detail, we can say we are on the verge of a historical document with a great deal of political and legal significance; the question is: why has this document been forgotten for nearly a year?

Automatically, the answer brings up the statement that says that the planned transitional body “must be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” This phrase is interpreted by the Russians as a statement indicating the participation of all Syrian figures in the transition process, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the members of his tight circle. Whereas, the Americans, along with the rest of the Western powers, have rejected this interpretation, which is also rejected by the Syrian opposition parties themselves.

How has the path altered?

The Russians have stuck to their position, despite having repeated the fact that they are not clinging to “certain individuals”, in reference to the Syrian president. The Americans continue to say that they do not see a place for Al-Assad in any transitional government, but later said – this is the new thing – they do not mind being involved in the negotiations leading up to the transition process. So, there has just been a fine change in the American approach.

Originally, Secretary of State, Kerry, had clearly stated that without accepting this, Syria may be on its way to disintegration, and millions of people may be on their way to suffering.

But what about Russia – has it paid a price for this fine change in the U.S. position? In addition to the American considerations that have already been mentioned, Washington may have gotten something in return from Russia, either regarding Syria or other issues in the international arena. What is likely now is that it was not something regarding Syria, rather something regarding international geo-politics in general. Is this a political deal? This is not the case, but it is a kind of general understanding imposed by mutual challenges.

Where are we heading?

The question now is: Will the second Geneva Conference, promised by Kerry, be held? This is what the Americans and the Russians want, as well as Damascus, Moscow’s ally.

What about the Syrian opposition? The opposition did not participate in the first Geneva Conference in 2012, which was a mistake in international considerations. Now, it is invited by the U.S and Russia to the second Geneva Conference, which will be held as a result of a rare international consensus. Either the opposition does go and says what it wants, or it refuses to go and later deals with variables it had no part in forming. Moreover, if the boycott of the conference leads to the failure of the conference, that is also a political outcome with its own set of consequences, which will not be good for our people, both in and outside the country.

Some may say that the future of our country is decided by the developments on the ground. This is true in terms of principle, but it is also true that we are not on an isolated island; there are international and regional actions that affect us in different ways. If we are keen on positively influencing internal affairs, we should work towards influencing these actions.

Therefore, we see that participating in the Geneva Conference is an opportunity that we should not miss. We must be inspired by the experiences of the world around us, as they hold many important lessons that will help us carefully consider the situation without emotion.

Today, we all realise that any delegation going to Geneva will not individually represent all the national forces, in addition to the fact that the discussions will not, in essence, be between groups of parties, but between two parties: the regime and opposition. Therefore, there must be a delegation that widely represents all the national forces and leaders of public opinion, both inside and outside the country. This is not an easy task, but is definitely not impossible.

Everyone must act on this basis, as the alternative to agreement between the national forces is the failure of the convention, or perhaps it not being held to begin with. On its part, the international community is concerned with heading for a peaceful settlement that saves our people from making more sacrifices and puts an end to our long-lived suffering.

The author is a Bahraini academic. This article is a translation of the Arabic version which appeared on Al Jazeera Net on 15 May, 2013.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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