A group of foreign ministers declared last week that Bashar al-Assad “would not have a role in Syria” when a transitional governing body was established to move the country forward. For all the media excitement over the announcement, this Friends of Syria grouping merely reiterated a basic condition of the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition group, recognised by more than 100 countries as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people”.
The public sidelining of Assad was a mere formality while efforts continue to convince the opposition not only to remain united in a single delegation, but to show up at an international conference in Geneva on 23 November. With many earlier promises still unfulfilled, Syrians opposed to Assad are used to lowering their expectations from the international community – but there are limits, and many are troubled by the current plans.
Instead of demanding an unconditional ceasefire, a lifting of Assad’s sieges on civilian areas and immediate access to humanitarian aid agencies, the Friends of Syria merely suggest the regime should take “confidence-building measures” before the talks. Meanwhile, without real international pressure, the Assad regime – which has Russia’s full support – continues to regard Geneva as a PR platform on which it will make deals with what it calls the “patriotic opposition” (small groups outside the mainstream opposition), which it has been nurturing so that when the times comes it can pretend it is reforming.
But if there is no push towards a real political transition and, more important, a cessation of hostilities, there is little point in the meeting – especially when the decisions of the first such conference over a year ago (Geneva I) are yet to be applied. So why so much lobbying by so many international powers?
Clearly, the US is desperate to move the Syria file off its desk and to pass it elsewhere – crucially, not to a specific entity, but to a process. After the Assad regime’s chemical massacre and President Obama’s backtracking on his declared red lines, Washington is eager to avoid future situations that could lead to calls for its direct involvement. It hopes to internationalise diplomatic efforts and lock everyone into unlimited rounds of talks, while paying lip service to the need for transition. But Obama’s “no more wars” position will merely allow others to fuel the conflict, and make the world more vulnerable.
Let’s be clear, most Syrians remain horrified by the prospect of US military engagement; they expected a diplomatic one, and the application of the UN’s responsibility to protect initiative. Yet without tangible support for Syria’s battered population and the opposition, Assad has been unhindered in his simple strategy of brute force until total victory, sustained by military intervention from Russia, Iran and their respective militias.
All hell has broken loose in Syria, with jihadist groups competing with the regime in savagery as both unleash attacks on revolutionaries and opponents. People are begging for a solution, but all the Obama administration seems to be seeking in Geneva is a process for the sake of a process, akin to the infamous Palestinian-Israeli Oslo process engaging two far from equal parties to negotiate interminably without ever reaching a deal.
An Oslo-style engagement would suit Assad very well, but his aspirations have graduated to something even better: in Geneva, the Syrian regime is looking for a new Taef agreement (the deal that ended Lebanon’s civil war to the Assad regime’s advantage), giving it free rein over the immediate region while undertaking cosmetic reform by placing token figures of the “patriotic opposition” in inconsequential government positions.
For many Syrians, either of these options would be catastrophic after two and a half years of utter misery; to close this painful page of their history, rebuild and move on without this brutal regime, many are now seeking their own version of the Dayton agreement, which brought peace to Bosnia.
But with Assad and his allies thinking Taef, and with Obama leading his allies towards Oslo, there will be no chance for a Dayton. Without international pressure on Russia to stop facilitating Assad’s murderous reign, there may be a Geneva process – but no Geneva agreement.
For all Obama’s platitudes about the world’s responsibilities, it is the US foremost that has the power, interest and obligation to help bring justice and peace to Syria and end the conflict. Real friends of Syria would break Assad’s siege, neutralise his air power, and convince Syrian people and revolutionaries alike that there is hope in Geneva, that a transition is imminent, that the nightmare is ending. Anything less than that merely pushes Syrians into further despair, and the region into even greater instability.
Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer and a board director on The Day After project.