The Useful Failure of Geneva II: Washington Finds Alternative to Assad

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Medical personnel look for survivors following a reported airstrike on the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 1, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed al-Khatieb)

By: Sami Kleib

Published Saturday, February 1, 2014

The most important result of Geneva II is its failure. Now, it is time to prepare better for the second round of negotiations, which might fail, too. The failure will likely continue until Russia and the United States agree on what the political solution will look like. Until the solution is ripe and ready, it is alright to administer some over-the-counter pain medicine and pretend that the cancer is being cured.

The failure of the first round of Geneva II allows the Russians to say the opposition is the problem. Moscow was not satisfied with the Syrian National Coalition delegation that negotiated in Geneva. Perhaps it was happy deep down that the delegation was weak and did not represent the opposition. Now, it can push to expand the representation of the opposition, end the coalition, and include most of the leftist, liberal, and secular opposition.

The failure of Geneva II does not bother Washington. The United States is looking to get rid of the specter of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is natural, then, to hold him responsible for the failure of the current round. The Barack Obama administration realizes that Assad is going to run in the presidential elections next summer. They think that if he runs, he will win. The United States is under Russian, Iranian, and Chinese pressure to leave the Syrian people to decide their future. There is an international consensus that Assad is guaranteed to win, even if the elections take place under international supervision.

The Americans cannot even imagine this possibility, but they can not overthrow Assad or kill him. If they do, the chemical weapons deal would stop and the open door with Iran would close. There would be a major problem with Russia and China who have not gotten over the international fraud involved in overthrowing the Libyan regime and killing Moammar Gadhafi. Most dangerous is that no one knows how the Syrian army and its allies would react.

It was necessary to pull the rug from under the feet of the Syrian government’s delegation in Geneva II. The speeches of the US, Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, and French foreign ministers in Montreux all held Assad responsible for the war and terrorism in the country. The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, continued the campaign with his statements about war crimes. The US Congress resumed non-lethal military aid to the moderate Syrian opposition. The United States and France accused the regime of obstructing the delivery of chemical weapons, and Washington proclaimed, again, that the war option against Syria is not off the table.

The message is clear: Assad is not allowed to retake the reins. At this point, almost everything is in his favor. A fractured political opposition, fighting among opposition fighters, the reconciliation process moving forward at a faster pace, the presence and vitality of the official delegation in Geneva II whose members dominated foreign media coverage, the high morale of the army on the ground, and the shift in the Syrian public mood, whereby many want a return of the state. Add to the mix the consistency of the Iranian and Russian positions in support of their Syrian ally. Sources from both sides confirm that Assad himself, and not just the regime, is still a red line.

What can Washington and its allies do?

There are three options. Either the US accepts Assad’s survival, candidacy, and victory based on a tacit agreement with Russia. (It is possible despite the American noise that will accompany it). Or it will try again to tip the military balance by giving the opposition lethal weapons. (An unlikely possibility because of concerns over al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Or it will put forward an acceptable alternative to Assad. (This option is being highly promoted at this point).

A senior US official says the alternative is ready. He is reticent about the details, but he points to two options. Either it will be someone who is acceptable to the army and the main figures of the regime, which means there will be no problem with the Russians and Iranians, or the presidency in the next phase will be a kind of transitional body based on Geneva II.

Before that, the Swiss city would have hosted a number of meetings to reach an international consensus on the shape of the transitional body, its powers and its role. The same official confirms, without batting an eyelid, that the alternative has been found, and he is from the Alawi sect. He confirms, too, that contacts have been made with people inside Syria for that purpose, and that the matter is now being discussed with the Russians. You can hear similar accounts from coalition leaders who were in Geneva.

Is it serious or is it just hype? Figures within the Syrian regime and a number of their allies believe that the United States has left no stone unturned to find an alternative to Assad. They add, however, that the United States was unable to achieve this goal, even when the regime was weak. So, how will it be able to do so now, when the state has regained many of the elements of its power? It is just hype, they insist.

As such, it appears that the failure of the current round of Geneva II is useful for Washington. The United States stresses that the coalition delegation made a major concession by sitting at the negotiating table. They also agreed to discuss side issues, abandoning the precondition for negotiations, i.e., Assad stepping down. But according to Washington, the official delegation demonstrated an unwillingness to accept anything that has to do with redrawing Syria’s political future. The United States confirms that, with its allies, they tried their best to encourage the coalition delegation to come to Geneva but that it might be harder in the future.

The Russians and their allies respond that the regime, too, made a major concession when it sat with parties it describes as terrorists. That is why Moscow argues that the reason this round of negotiations did not go anywhere is because the coalition is unable to control the opposition forces on the ground and does not represent the opposition.

It is necessary, then, to have future negotiations attended by a larger cross section of the opposition and to have a more effective regional presence. The Russians talk about the need to include Iran in future negotiations that will likely take place in a few months.

It is said that Tehran, through the warm reception it gave the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to pull the rug from under the feet of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian and Turkish sides are looking for a Syrian opposition that is not subject to Saudi influence. Turkey wants a price for that, however. It keeps on saying that Assad is the problem, hoping to soften Iranian opposition to the idea of abandoning him. Nevertheless, the facts on the ground indicate that the Turkish wind is blowing against the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. This is the only thing that will weaken the fighters and make it possible to find future common ground regarding Aleppo and its countryside.

All this reveals that not all the elements of the political solution are available. But it also suggests that efforts are accelerating behind the scenes, even though the most likely possibility is that the war in Syria will go on for quite some time. However, concern over terrorism means that the United States and its allies do not have the luxury of managing the Syrian crisis forever. It is necessary, therefore, to keep the two Syrian sides within a framework of successive negotiations, even if the results are modest or even non-existent in the early stages.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

This gives me the same feeling of unreality that I have been getting for years whenever I read M K Bhadrakumar in Asia Times. I assume that it is for the same reason, namely, that Bhadrakumar is a lifetime career diplomat, and he continues to cling to the diplomatic convention of solemnly pretending that covert action does not exist. This leads him, among other things, to take al-Qaeda at face value. For some considerable time now, I have refused to do this. After all, I have no diplomatic prestige to use. As far as I'm concerned, al-Qaeda is and always has been a CIA deniable asset. The current idea that (a) the US cannot control the Saudi leadership, and (b) the Saudi leadership cannot control the networks of 'private donors' seems to me to be a very weak instance of 'deniability'.

So all of the above, which is predicated on the notion that ISIS and Nusra are beyond US control, is implausible to me. The way I see it, part of Bandar's job is to pretend to be beyond US control. That's what 'deniability' is all about. It's the oldest trick in the book. Imagine the crime boss saying to his victim: "I sympathise with you, but those boys of mine, ya know, they're hot-headed, I can't always hold them back. If I try, they'll say I'm getting old." It's exactly the same trick. Putin very nearly called the US out over 9/11, but he restrained himself because, I think, he felt that to accuse the US outright of grand terrorist fraud would forfeit Russia what he fondly imagined could otherwise be its membership in the bourgeois club of nations. That's the saddest thing about Putin, his bourgeois illusions.

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