BEIRUT: The Geneva II talks and scheduled presidential election in Syria have the potential to make 2014 a defining year in the Syrian crisis.
But, analysts say, the absence of political will on the part of all stakeholders for a genuine settlement risks reducing key events to merely more diplomatic theatrics.
Moreover, the rising role of Al-Qaeda-inspired armed groups has convulsed an already chaotic situation, shifting the priorities of stakeholder countries, compromising the original aims of the talks and making for awkward allegiances.
After several delays, the long-touted U.S. and Russian sponsored talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition are scheduled to convene in Montreaux in Switzerland on Jan. 22. The talks are aimed at establishing the circumstances for a transitional government in the country in the run-up to presidential elections in 2014.
But there is as yet no agreement on how to implement the agenda. The regime in Syria demands that talks go ahead without preconditions, and is increasingly insistent that Syrian President Bashar Assad be allowed to run in the presidential election. The mainstream opposition-in-exile Syrian National Coalition remains bitterly divided and, having failed to establish legitimacy and support from Syrians inside the country, demands Assad’s resignation as an end and a means for constructive talks. But the opposition has yet to form a united front and settle on a delegation to send to the conference.
Islamist fighters inside Syria reject the authority of the coalition’s military wing the Free Syrian Army and the Geneva II process outright. Fierce fighting between rebel factions in recent months has also cast doubt on the opposition’s ability to negotiate credibly.
Meanwhile, fighting rages across the country, drawing in foreign militants on both sides in a grinding, bloody stalemate.
With the threat of Al-Qaeda looming, and in the absence of a coherent and sufficiently supported moderate opposition, preventing extremists from dominating any post-Assad transition has appeared to eclipse the West’s original aim of ousting Assad.
Diplomats and officials are now changing the language of the talks, describing them as “the beginning of a process” rather than a political settlement in itself. There are increasing signs the U.S. and its partners are now willing to allow the regime, in some form, to maintain a role in Syria.
In a blog post for the Atlantic Council, where he is a senior fellow, Fred Hof, the former special adviser on Syria to U.S. President Barack Obama, described how Washington’s inaction has put the administration in an awkward position in finding a credible alternative to Assad.
The two options, he continued, were between moderates “whose failure to rally the West and become rooted inside Syria has left them sadly adrift and broadly discredited,” and “those who have decided to fight the regime in the name of Islam without waiting for Washington to lift a finger.”
Amr al-Azm, a Syrian-American associate professor in Middle East history at Shawnee State University and member of the opposition, told The Daily Star there was broad agreement on Assad’s departure but little had been done to promote a credible alternative.
“As far as the Geneva settlement goes, and as far as the Americans and the Europeans are concerned, they don’t give a monkey what it looks like, they just want a fig leaf, a sign to say they have dealt with Al-Qaeda,” Azm said.
“They are looking at any option. The Americans just want to get to grips with this problem that they allowed to happen,” he added, referring to the rise in radical Islamist fighters.
While a common adversary in the form of extremists may foster the conditions for talks, it has made for awkward bedfellows between the U.S. and the Syrian regime, along with their supporters in Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.
“They want a Geneva settlement, but their priorities are all mixed up and now they are willing to work with people that were once unacceptable,” he said.
The U.S. has announced a willingness to engage with Islamist militias that aren’t affiliated with Al-Qaeda, though these groups have rebuffed the offer.
Nikolaos Van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Iraq and Egypt and the author of The Struggle For Power In Syria, said if talks in fact managed to go ahead, they could provide an opening for political pluralism and for an alternative to emerge.
“The international community has reinforced the legitimacy of the regime,” he said, referring to the inaction that followed a chemical attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead on Aug. 21.
Van Dam termed a Geneva deal a “safe way out for the U.S. and Russia.”
“The regime will remain involved in some form, but the character may change. Even without Assad, the structure remains the same.”
“Elections are a very important opening. Even more candidates [for presidential polls] who don’t have blood on their hands would be an achievement.”
“There is no prospect for the opposition at this point and the people just want it to stop.”
For Azm, an opportunity might be found in an agreement on the transitional phase, which could pave the way for a genuine settlement.
A transitional governing body, he said, could create the necessary instruments required to hold genuine polls if it was agreed that all presidential powers be suspended in that period, paving the way for competitors to emerge.
“We are not saying [Assad] can’t stand, but we are saying you can’t have elections until the right mechanisms are put in place,” he explained.
“Assad is definitely going; it’s the mechanism that’s important.”