The Prospects of the Geneva II Conference
The long-awaited Geneva-II process, despite its name, started in Montreux, Switzerland on Jan. 22, with a conference attended by 39 foreign ministers and several international organizations. The real negotiations will start in Geneva tomorrow between the representatives of the al-Assad regime and the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The U.S. and Russia tried to convince conflicting parties for some months to come to the meeting. When they finally agreed, the last minute invitation from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, to Iran on Jan. 19 to join the negotiations almost wrecked the whole process. The intense pressure from the U.S. and other countries, as well as the threat of boycott by the Syrian opposition, led to the withdrawal of the invitation less than 24 hours, securing at least the start of the conference. No parties, except Russia, wishes to involve Iran in the process, as Iran has openly supported the al-Assad regime since the civil war began in Syria. Moreover, Iran does not accept the “goal of establishing a transitional governing body by mutual consent,” set in the Geneva I conference in June 2012. Although Ban Ki-Moon announced Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had assured him Iran accepted the terms, the Iranian counter statement came almost immediately.
Just as this obstacle was evaded, the release of a report two days before the conference by a London-based law firm Carter-Ruck, prepared by well-known war crime experts, based on thousands of photographs of detainees killed by the regime, will haunt the discussions in Geneva. Although releasing the report so close to the conference bounds to be controversial, it will no doubt weaken al-Assad’s hand during the negotiations.
There are other problems that could still derail the successful outcome of the conference. Although the western backed SNC decided to attend the conference, it’s representation among opposition forces on the ground is rather weak. Many opposition groups flatly reject any negotiations with the al-Assad regime. Besides, emerging conflicts among the opposition groups is threatening both their unity and hopes for a negotiated end to the civil war.
On the other side, despite the recent accusations of war crimes against Bashar al-Assad, he would not consider stepping down. He is still seeking re-election, as he underlined during an interview last week.
Neither side has changed its position even minimally on the way to Geneva. Bringing them to the same room proved difficult enough; chances of getting them to agree on a solution and hoping other parties will also agree to that solution is rather slim.
The involvement of regional and international actors with their varying interests is also complicating the problem. Iran and Saudi Arabia have benefitted from the sectarian implications of the civil war and used it to their advantage in the regional balance of power. Moving along without Iran, one of the important regional actors would limit the chances of finding a solution. Not only Iran, but also some other internal actors, such as Kurdish and Islamist groups, are not attending either.
The Geneva II process is no doubt important. Since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, nearly 150,000 people have been killed and millions of people have been displaced or have become refugees.
It poses serious threat to neighboring countries. The Geneva meeting will be the first face-to-face talk between the al-Assad Regime and at least some part of the opposition groups. The hope is to find at least a hint toward a solution that could come in the longer term with further negotiations and international pressure on parties. Yet, it is clear Syria will continue to be a bleeding wound in the Middle East for years to come.