yrian government representatives arrived in Geneva on Nov. 29 — a day late — for the latest round of negotiations aimed at resolving the country’s civil war. The meeting began Nov. 28, but representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delayed their arrival reportedly until they were assured there would be no discussion of removing Assad from power.

The rebels, however, still insist any settlement must include Assad’s departure.

There are many, many cooks in the kitchen trying to serve up their own resolution to the nearly seven-year war. The United Nations is sponsoring the talks in Geneva — this is the eighth round — but related meetings have taken place in other locations.

Moscow is participating in the negotiations and has shifted its focus from military activities to finding and implementing a political resolution to the conflict. Russia hosted a trilateral summit last week in Sochi in an effort to calm Turkey and Iran after the United States and Russia agreed earlier in November that there is no military solution in Syria. Russia’s summit also allowed for a meeting of minds ahead of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that Russia plans in Sochi. The congress is tentatively scheduled to be held sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, during the break between the first and second stages of the Geneva talks.

Also last week, Saudi Arabia hosted a preparatory three-day meeting of opposition parties in its capital. Moscow praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unite the opposition for the Geneva talks and to help draft a new Syrian Constitution. Moscow sent Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia's special envoy to Syria, to the meeting.

During those talks, the various opposition groups chose Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, to lead them in negotiations. He had filled the same role at previous talks in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan.

The 36 opposition representatives at Geneva include eight from the Syrian National Coalition, five from the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, eight independent delegates, four each from the Cairo- and Moscow-based platforms, and seven from military factions. 

The armed opposition delegates will represent Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Yarmouk, several Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and the Free Tribes’ Army, a confederation of tribal militias trained by Jordan.

Hariri took over the High Negotiations Committee from Riyad Hijab. Before Hijab resigned Nov. 20, he made it clear that under his leadership, the High Negotiations Committee had been pressured into making concessions that favored Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed Hijab’s resignation as “the retreat of radically minded opposition figures from playing the main role.” However, Hariri reaffirmed his stance that a transitional governing body should be established without Assad. Hijab also said Russia’s proposal to host the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi will not contribute to the political process, as talks on Syria should be organized under UN auspices 

At first glance, one might expect the many separate summits and meetings to force Assad and the opposition to bring the armed conflict to an end. Arab and other countries have extended their seemingly warm welcome to Russia’s efforts — if the attempts are really aimed at reforming the system and preparing the ground for Syrian fair elections in the future.

However, the “if” matters most. Russia’s military intervention in the war in 2015 tipped the scales in favor of Assad’s regime, and Russia has strongly backed Assad's remaining in power. For these reasons, opposition representatives have said the upcoming Sochi congress amounts to “the regime negotiating with the regime.”

Also, many opposition representatives object to the inclusion in their ranks of what they call “puppet opposition” groups that are considered quite loyal to the regime and Syrian intelligence. Syria faced demonstrations against the groups’ participation in negotiations, as they have nothing to do with the Syrian revolution. 

Nevertheless, the representatives were included in the “unified” delegation in Geneva, even though decision-making on behalf of the opposition requires an approval from 75% of the delegates. Some representatives of the opposition believe the “puppet” groups will help the regime block any proposals it doesn’t like.

The Syrian regime has wielded considerable negotiating power at the Geneva talks as, on the one hand, it enjoys the support of Iran and Russia and, on the other hand, Syrian forces mounted successful military operations in eastern Syria. The regime quite clearly is ready to enter into a dialogue with the opposition and even take it back into the country — but only if the opposition agrees to abide by any conditions imposed by the authorities.

Regardless of all the divisions and disagreements, the pro-government coalition remains relatively united both militarily and politically. The forces that oppose the regime, on the contrary, are still splintered. Moscow is well-aware that despite large-scale international support, the opposition is being pulled in different directions by its various allies. Russia has been ruling the roost as the country that managed to uphold and protect Syrian state institutions and impose its rules of the game in the absence of Washington's clear agenda in Syria, the Saudi-Qatari crisis and internal problems in the Gulf region in general.

Russia is approaching a Syrian settlement with a “healthy skepticism,” which, by the way, appeals to the masses. Most Russians are quick to equate any FSA group with the Islamic State and continue to believe in the legitimacy of the ruling regime. The prove-that-they-are-not-terrorists stance toward the armed rebels allowed Moscow to carry out strikes against moderate opposition groups, only to recognize them as such during the talks. That was followed by the emphasis on Moscow's ability to seek and accept a compromise and hold a dialogue with all the parties to the conflict, regardless of the voting outcome. Moscow, thus, stressed its readiness to recognize any politician the Syrian people will vote for, be it Assad or his opponents.

I would like to be in the wrong here, but the current momentum has Assad as the sole victor in the civil war, while ostensibly factoring in the opposition's sentiments. But his Nov. 20 visit to Sochi shows there is no equal, full-fledged rival to the authorities among the opposition forces. In this sense, holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress — even though it allows Kurdish participation — implies granting equal voting rights to the puppet opposition.

Moscow’s stance is also apparent if we consider its attitude toward the de-escalation zones. Russian diplomats recognize the legitimacy of local councils as civil administrations of the opposition-controlled territories, and military negotiators are ready to work with them on the ground. However, the punishment mechanism for violations has remained unilateral. Essentially, the opposition, as a defeated party, is granted some concessions in the form of the de-escalation zones to avoid further operations and prevent new bloodshed. At the same time, the de-escalation zones are largely meant to gently and gradually reintegrate the opposition and bring it under the control of the regime. Perhaps this accounts for Moscow’s statements that, to date, governmental forces control more than 98% of the territory, including the de-escalation zones and the areas run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/syria-opposition-meeting-geneva-assad-russia.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Martial Trezzini

Published in Tribune

The agenda for the next round of Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana was determined in an Aug. 7 meeting in Tehran of the three guarantor countries — Turkey, Iran and Russia — amid expectations that the Astana conference will be held in the last week of August. What is expected from this meeting between the Syrian government and opposition representatives?
The answers lie in the two de-escalation zones that have been effective so far. The first was announced in early July in the southwest, covering Daraa, Suwaida and Qunaitra. The second was announced on Aug. 2, covering northern Homs, including Al-Waer neighborhood. The expectation is that there will be a push for de-escalation zones in other parts of Syria.
Negotiators will also discuss a proposal shared by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. It contains the “four baskets” of transitional governance, a constitutional process, elections and counterterrorism. The conference will discuss which topic to handle first; the Syrian government insists on counterterrorism.
The outcome will have a long-term impact on regional stability, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees. The meeting could help stop the spill-over from Syria into these countries, provided that Russia and the US continue to cooperate to expand de-escalation zones. The Astana meeting will also call on all countries not to interfere in Syrian internal affairs and focus on how to rebuild the country.

Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Despite the failure of previous Geneva talks to stop fighting in various parts of Syria, the government and opposition have agreed 15 evacuation deals that have allowed opposition fighters to safely leave besieged cities and towns for Idlib.
A cease-fire in three southwestern governorates was announced on July 10 shortly after long meetings between Russians and Americans in Jordan, which helped bridge the gap between them. Under the deal, Russian officers are monitoring the cease-fire.
To many analysts, things are moving faster than expected in Syria due to coordination between both superpowers, and a belief among the government and opposition that there has been more than enough fighting. Both parties acknowledge that now is the time to stop the war and open a new page for all Syrians to rebuild their country.
Some opposition leaders have started echoing the government in saying a solution cannot be imposed on Syrians by other countries, particularly since the US said it will no longer push for Bashar Assad to be removed from power. Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1142776/columns

Photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 26 February 2017 23:26

Geneva IV: Paving the path to peace

There is no longer unhealthy interest and agitation around the Geneva talks. Speculation and media manipulation have significantly decreased, enabling negotiators to concentrate more on negotiations than on popping cameras. No one expects a breakthrough from Geneva IV, but then it depends what is considered a breakthrough.

It is significant that for the first time in almost six years of bloody and devastating war, the government and inclusive opposition are ready for direct talks. Even though UN envoy Staffan de Mistura says he sees little common ground between the sides, the fact that they have matured to the point of overcoming mutual hatred and talking directly is promising.

Another positive sign is that thanks to the efforts of many players — including Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — the opposition has reached the fourth round of talks more united than ever, and able to articulate its positions and demands without stalling each time due to internecine debates and disputes. Despite having little common ground, the sides seem keener on ending the war, concentrating on a political transition and fighting extremists.

Even Turkey, which had staunchly supported the opposition forces from the start of the conflict, has softened its position on the Syrian regime, admitting it is no longer realistic to insist on a solution that excludes President Bashar Assad. The fact that tough preconditions from the opposition side have disappeared from their political statements is also an important and promising sign. Removing a military solution to the conflict is a true breakthrough.

Much was done to make these achievements possible by Turkey and Russia after their own reconciliation. The Astana format, which served to back up the Geneva process, harmonized negotiations and enabled the possibility of direct talks.

The main problem is the ground forces that are not interested in a settlement of the conflict. These radicals and extremists are profiting from it. Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra Front, is a major headache. Its infiltration of opposition ranks hampered Russia-US talks on the separation of radical groups and moderate opposition in east Aleppo. This paralysis led to rebel defeat in east Aleppo, which was a game changer in the conflict, at a high cost in human lives that could have been avoided.

Peace in Syria is not in the interests of extremist groups. For Daesh and other terrorists, the longer the conflict, the easier it is to radicalize and recruit. These groups could not survive in peacetime.

At the Munich Security Conference, De Mistura outlined the challenges the political process is facing, and provocations from parties that are playing spoiler. Players such as Russia and Turkey, which stand out as guarantors of the peace process, are working to elaborate mechanisms to minimize the impact of provocations and maintain the cease-fire, which is indispensable for any political process.

It is high time for Syrians to come up with a political settlement to end the violence, chemical attacks, atrocities and suffering. It is high time for the international community to join forces to help them do so.

Geneva IV will not result in breakthroughs that will immediately lead to a political process, but it could pave the way for such agreements. The political maturity of both sides gives hope for further involvement of civil society in negotiations, which will facilitate talks and an indispensable political transition.

International players should stop playing geopolitical games on the bones of innocent Syrians. The longer a political settlement is questioned by negotiating sides, and the longer the Assad regime listens more to Tehran than to Moscow, the stronger terrorist cells will become, and the harder it will be for the international community to fight them. The future of Syria and the world is at stake.

However, the start of a political process is no guarantee of peace. The devil is in the details, and disputes over many issues can lead to the continuation of the conflict in different forms. But no matter the risks and challenges, it is time for all Syrians to work together and remember that they are one nation, and that the key to peace lies only in their hands.

Article published in Arab News:

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1059851

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 12 February 2017 15:33

Moving towards Geneva: Giving peace a chance

Syria is moving to the fourth round of the Geneva talks. Two days of inclusive talks in Riyadh, bringing to the negotiation table the expanded Syrian opposition, including the Astana delegation and the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, finished yesterday. 

The opposition was harmonizing its positions on the threshold of the new Astana round, setting the priorities for Geneva Talks and discussing the outcomes of the previous Astana meeting.

The Astana meeting did not replace the format, but became a supplementary in-strument, a back-up tool for the Geneva negotiations. Astana permitted the realiza-tion of ceasefire, and the first round of talks resulted in the elaboration of trilateral monitoring mechanisms of the ceasefire regime in Syria, guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

On February 15-16, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry will host another round of talks, welcoming delegations from the Syrian government and the rebel side, along with the UN Special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistoura, and the delegations of three guarantors.

Jordanian and the US delegations are also invited to take part in Astana II.  

Resolving problems 

The Astana format is set to solve the problems preventing the Geneva format from being a success, by instituting the communication process and resolving ground is-sues, mostly related to the military sphere, and paving the way for political resolu-tion and the long-awaited and inevitable transitional process. 

The Geneva talks are set to be held on February 20. A lot has changed since the previous round. The third round practically did not leave hope for a political solu-tion. The Opposition, both moderate and otherwise, was so much fragmented, that it could not come to any agreement even within its own ranks. The International community was supporting separate opposition groups, thus somehow fragmenting them even more and politicizing the whole negotiation process, putting it in the framework of global geopolitical rivalries. 

The major changes in the global sphere, the focus of the US on presidential elections first and then on the cataclysms in face of Trump’s administration, with the West watching the goings on in Washington, together with changes on the ground in Syria have significantly changed the situation and prospects of the negotiations. 

The foreign states have cut their financial support to the rebel groups, and there are practically no more voices calling to topple the Syrian regime by force. 

As was stated by prominent Syrian dissident Louay Hussein, “the armed conflict for the state is over”, and the majority in the opposition are going back towards a political struggle. Even though Hussein’s conclusions are premature, his words have a grain of truth.

 

The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. 

Maria Dubovikova


The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. Such attempts to disrupt negotiation and political process do not correspond to the expectations of the majority of the rebels and opposition forces. They alienate themselves from the political process, lose credibility, drifting to the terrorist Islamist formations in the company of which they have all chances to end up their fight. But this will hardly inflict significant damage to the negotiation process. 

Assad’s stubbornness 

What can be done about the stubbornness of the regime in Damascus. Russia’s in-fluence on the regime is overestimated than real. Damascus will keeps listening to advice as long as that that corresponds to its own expectations and vision. 

Iran has more influence on Damascus than anyone else, taking into account the strong Iranian support of the ruling regime. Iran is not interested in transition and in toppling Assad. Iran is interested in guaranteeing its influence on Syria in the post -war scenario. That is Tehran’s main priority. And during the negotiation process, Iran will do its best not to let anyone kick it out from the post-war political system rebuilding in Syria. 

Nothing is guaranteed for the outcome of the Fourth Geneva round. However, the sides attending it are far more organized than ever, and the opposition is looking forward to these talks with more enthusiasm and hope, than before, when the for-mat was considered mostly useless for them. 

There is a high risk that Damascus and Tehran can sabotage the talks with their stubbornness, as their positions are poles apart on many issues to the expectations of the opposition. Even in case of success there are many issues that will have to be faced during the political process and that will provoke at best tough debates. One such issue is the Kurdish matter.

While all the sides are seriously getting ready for talks, Syrians are looking to the future with hope. Reportedly, people have started to return to Syria, mostly to the ruins of their past, but they are strongly motivated to restoring their country and homes with their own hands. 

Life is returning even to ruined East Aleppo. Peace got a chance it did not have before, during all the long years of the bloody war.

Initially published by Al Arabiya English: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/02/12/Moving-towards-Geneva-Giving-peace-a-chance-.html 

Published in Tribune

A new round of Geneva talks started on Wednesday, with the general environment more or less positive. Increased ceasefire violations have not disrupted the peace process until now - hopefully, neither will the provocative offensives of Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel groups linked to it. However there are deep concerns over the rumors that Damascus is preparing for the offensive on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

Ahead of the talks, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and his Iranian counterpart to ensure the successful continuation of the peace process. The envoy has described the talks starting today as “crucially important,” focusing on a political transition.

 

The whole piece is available on Al Arabiya English web-site

Published in Tribune