UN security council resolution 2118, which will underpin the process of ridding Syria of its chemical weapons, marks a watershed in the conflict. After a number of attempts to get the world to take action, this could now have a decisive impact on the civil war, clearing the path to Geneva II, the long-delayed and internationally agreed forum for a «grand settlement» of the Syrian crisis.
Beyond this, a new reality has dawned: Syria is not to be master of its own fate. It is now firmly in the hands of the powers, whether international or regional, who will negotiate and possibly enter into geopolitical horse-trading without regard for the footsoldiers, whether on the side of President Assad or the opposition. Syrians have been remorselessly battering each other, and the country they claim to love, which has resulted in the virtual surrender of the nation’s sovereignty and independence – and very possibly the territorial integrity achieved in 1946 after a long and heroic struggle against French rule.
If the Syrian government looks bad after the latest diplomatic twist, the same can be said about the opposition. Divided and lacking credibility at the best of times, it pinned its hopes on an American military strike, hoping it would inflict a fatal blow on the regime. When no such attack materialised it was left humiliated: for being «betrayed» by an ally who again promised but did not deliver; and for being seen in the Arab street as inviting a western imperial armed assault on its own country.
The episode revealed again the official opposition’s lack of a coherent strategy. Instead of showing statesmanship and leadership and rallying the Syrian people, of all sects and ethnic backgrounds, behind a programme of democratic transformation, it allowed itself to be led by Islamist hardliners into a narrowly defined agenda that alienated many secular-minded Syrians. Too late it sees its Islamism usurped by the rising tide of al-Qaida jihadism, which it naively believed could be easily drafted into an alliance against the common enemy. Now that ally is showing as much ferocity in striking at the «moderates» of the Free Syrian Army as against the regime.
In the meantime, as the forces within battle it out to a stalemate, the country and its people are experiencing unprecedented levels of abduction, imprisonment, torture, displacement, death and destruction. It is no wonder that many Syrians will be desperately longing for any process that might put an end to their plight, as the international community finally finds its voice.
A new nexus of powerbrokers, including a less entrenched Iran under its new president, may now hold the key. And should Geneva II lead to a ceasefire and a new hybrid authority to administer Syria in the lead-up to democratic elections and a new constitution, Syrians will breathe a sigh of relief.
However, such an outcome cannot be assured. The chances of success will increase if the Syrians taking part include a strong representation of not just the regime and the official opposition – a recipe for endless argument and deadlock – but also of Syrian civil society networks and activists. These were the original organisers of the largely peaceful protest movement, before the brutal government crackdown and the armed reaction produced the current bloody conflict.
Even so, many pitfalls could eventually bring this process grinding to a halt, not least the growing strength of al-Qaida and its acolytes, particularly in northern Syria. These forces have no interest in the emergence of a stable and democratic country. Indeed, part of Geneva II’s agenda must be establishing a plan of action to deal with the threat of an Islamic emirate spreading its roots throughout the country. Post-settlement regime loyalists and the mainstream forces of the opposition could find themselves needing to form a common front – despite their current enmity – to confront those who want to destroy whatever remains of Syria’s rich diversity and tolerance.
This remains an unlikely scenario; but the more the jihadists, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, provoke outrage with acts of barbarism – such as the recent sacking of Christian churches in al-Raqqa – the more Syrians of all shades of opinion will realise the mortal danger they collectively face and will resolve to end the suicidal internecine conflict they are currently locked in.
In that respect an agreement in Geneva will be just the starting point. The real battle for Syria’s soul lies in wait. The earlier Geneva II can deliver a settlement, the better prepared Syrians will be to wage that battle.
Ghayth Armanazi is Syrian-born and a former head of the Arab League Mission in London.