Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

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After a brief snafu over Iran’s presence, the Geneva 2 peace talks are set to get underway tomorrow (1/22). While it is difficult to be excited about the possibility of meaningful change coming out of this conference, the fatalism surrounding the talks is downright counter-productive:

It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.

“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimization to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.

“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. “We should think of this as a kind of ‘getting to know you,’ as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here,” Joshi says, “what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example.”

Normative Narratives is a place to discuss what we think “should happen”–there is no room for cynicism or fatalism here. Having both sides at the table (the SNC and the Assad regime), Geneva 2 presents an opportunity to set the stage for meaningful change in Syria. Meaningful change, of course, requires concessions from both sides. In the context of a civil war, agreements needs to be externally verifiable and include repercussion for reneging on said agreements.  Here is how that change could play out:

1) Bashar Al-Assad commits to having open elections on schedule (May 2014, or if that date is not possible as soon as the U.N. deems such elections feasible), allowing for international peacekeepers and elections committees to oversee the vote. Any interested party could run in these elections; the precondition stated by S.o.S John Kerry, that only parties agreed upon by both the regime and the opposition may run, would restrict the field of candidates to non-existent. Let the Syrian people decide what they want, and ensure their voices are heard.

There are logistical and security problems with holding an election in a country mired in Civil War, in which a third of the population is either internally displaced or has fled the country. These are major issues to be worked out by the U.N. between now and when elections are to be held.

2) In return for a commitment to Presidential elections, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and Bashar Al-Assad agree to a nationwide cease-fire. There are potential problems with this solution; Will both sides honor the deal? Can the SNC retain any legitimacy with the opposition if it agrees to such a deal?

While these concerns are legitimate, they continue a fatal theme that has (in part) allowed the Syrian Civil War to persist. This theme is the marginalization of the vast majority of Syrians (who want a ceasefire and elections), while placing the greatest emphasis on the desires of the most violent parties of the war. By agreeing to a ceasefire, it will become clear which factions of the opposition are committed to a democratic Syrian state, and which factions only wish to seize power / setup an Islamic state.

Assad has reason to agree to a ceasefire as well, even if he is not at risk of losing the war. With a third of the population displaced, and an estimated loss of 35 years of development gains, Assad has a long way to go if he has any hope of becoming the legitimate democratically elected leader of Syria.

3) Assad has used the narrative of “fight terrorists” to justify his brutal crackdown on the opposition. A ceasefire would force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. It can be assumed that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) would not honor the ceasefire. Let those factions continue to pose a security threat, and force Assad to fight them (instead of sitting back and laughing at rebel in-fighting). This would also put to rest the claim that Assad is actually backing ISIS to undermine his legitimate opposition:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. “Nobody is going to be fooled” by Assad’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, “when he, himself, has been funding those extremists.”

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

“All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS,” says a Western diplomat. “There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies.”

ISIS would also have to be countered from the Iraqi side in order to push this group to the margins.

4) A cease-fire would compromise the SNCs ability to take up arms again, by alienating the group from many of the opposition fighters on the ground. If Assad reneged on either the cease-fire or holding transparent elections, the SNC would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is therefore imperative that this deal is backed up by a commitment by the UNSC (including Russia and China) and NATO forces to intervene in the instance of meaningful deviations from this road-map to democracy.

Without such a commitment, the cost of reneging for Assad would be non-existent, while (as mentioned above) it would be disastrous for the SNC. Furthermore, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would need to be setup immediately to ensure Assad does not punish those opposed to him once they lay down their arms, while also establishing an environment conducive to transparent elections.

Lots of commitments between parties who do not like or trust each are needed in order to make this plan a reality. However, in the context of a “hurting stalemate”, growing regional instability, and gross human rights violations, there is no stomachable alternative. The international community has put in a great effort to make Geneva 2 a reality. The SNC has continued to put its faith in the international system, despite years of empty promises and inaction. The Syrian people cannot afford a meaningless convention, with a best-case-scenario of increased humanitarian access.

The world owes it to Syria to aim big, and make a full-faith effort to establish a ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, and create a road-map to transparent democratic elections. I believe I have mapped out a good starting point, one that requires concessions from both sides and is mutually beneficial. If I can think of these ideas, one can only hope that diplomatic officials could come up with a realistic / workable solution.

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