Middle East

Qusair tips balance for Geneva meeting

A damaged FSA vehicle lies abandoned after heavy fighting against forces affiliated with Assad and Hezbollah in the Al-Barak area near Qusair on May 31.

BEIRUT: The defeat of the opposition in Qusair strengthens the regime’s hand and exposes deep flaws in the West’s policy on Syria ahead of talks aimed at bringing the regime and the rebels to the negotiating table, analysts said Wednesday. The news that Hezbollah and Syrian forces had overrun the town came as senior diplomats meeting in Geneva failed to make any headway during preparatory meetings for a U.S.-Russian conference on the crisis.

Speaking about the effect of the battle for Qusair on the negotiations, Aram Nerguizian, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Not only does the outcome not favor the opposition, it empowers the regime.”

The conference, originally earmarked for June, was agreed by rival backers of the Syrian conflict – the United Sates and Russia – to work toward a political solution to the conflict through the formation of a transition government in the country.

But there are deep doubts over the talks’ potential for success, with ongoing divisions within the opposition and no agreement on the parameters of the conference, particularly what role, if any, President Bashar Assad might play in the transition.

Russia has ruled out any preconditions for talks, while Assad has refused to step down as part of any transition plan. The main opposition group, the National Syrian Coalition, has refused to take part in talks without assurances that Assad will leave.

In the lead-up to the diplomatic efforts, both sides have escalated military rhetoric in what many analysts see as an attempt to increase negotiating powers if and when the talks go ahead.

Speaking in Jordan at a meeting of foreign ministers opposing Assad in Amman last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to indicate the West would arm the rebels if Assad refused to go to negotiations.

“In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate in Geneva ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support to the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country,” Kerry told reporters.

The West, increasingly concerned weapons could end up in the hands of potentially hostile extremist groups, has so far promised only nonlethal aid to the opposition. However, the rebels are badly outgunned by the Syrian national army, who have access to airpower and proxy militia groups from Hezbollah and Iran.

Plans to arm secular-minded rebels through Jordan have not come to fruition and opposition groups have been unable to secure the weapons they say they need to tip the balance.

However, the European Union’s arms embargo will expire August after France and Britain refused to agree to renew the restrictions, potentially paving the way for them to arm the rebels this summer.

On the ground, Assad loyalist forces have pursued a concerted offensive, retaking territory from the rebels along a key corridor stretching from Deraa in the south, through Damascus and Homs in the center, along the Lebanese border and north to Aleppo and Assad’s Alawite coastal heartland.

Increasingly, Assad has depended on Hezbollah and other groups to cement gains, particularly in Qusair, where his forces finally overwhelmed what the former rebel stronghold in a blistering attack overnight Wednesday.

With U.S. policy divided on arming the opposition, and intense support for Assad from his backers – Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – analysts say the military escalation as a negotiating tool has backfired for the West.

“The West talked the talk but didn’t back it up, whereas the regime talked the talk and delivered, with Hezbollah and the Iranians,” said Syrian oppositionist and history professor in Ohio, Amr al-Azm.

“In early 2013, the expectation was that the U.S. administration was only able to bring the regime to the negotiating table through military degradation of Assad’s forces and support for the opposition forces that would allow them to take and hold areas that were of vital strategic interest to the regime,” he said.

“The opposition would then have something the regime actually wants and would be willing to sit and negotiate over.” Instead, he said, the U.S. and its allies promises of military aid amounted to mere “saber rattling.”

“They [the West] managed to push the Iranians and the regime to thinking they were serious, making them confident enough to take more assertive action... The regime will happily go to the table now, but in no mood to negotiate. They will be in a mood to impose their demands.”

“The U.S. administration’s singular lack of assertive leadership has not only undermined the opposition and very much contributed to the state of affairs we find ourselves in now, but consistently undermined any chance of getting rid of the regime or replacing it with something else,” he said.

Nerguizian agreed. “Assad loses nothing from going down the negotiations road. Negotiations do not imply concessions. They imply participation that you may be able to use to your advantage. The running joke is this idea that Assad will be talking to an empty chair [in Geneva]. From a diplomatic standpoint that’s a win for Assad.”

But a meeting Wednesday between Russia’s deputy foreign ministers, Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and U.N. Syria Peace Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi failed to set a date for the conference.

“It will not be possible to hold this conference in June,” Brahimi told reporters, adding that the talks, which would be hosted by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, could “hopefully [be] in July.”

“This conference cannot be held without Syrian delegations. The Syrian delegations have not been formed yet.”

Gatilov, meanwhile, was more explicit. “Right now the most complicated issue is perhaps about a list of conference participants,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

“The entire issue is that unlike the government, the Syrian opposition has not decided in principle on the participation in the conference,” he said.

Azm said the failure was embarrassing to the West.

“If I were the Americans, I would go to Geneva as soon as possible, call them a failure and then blame the regime. Then go to the next stage,” he said, without elaborating what that next stage could be.

Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Qusair defeat did not alter “any illusions people had that Geneva could end the fighting.”

He said it would strengthen arguments by the opposition and their allies that it was time to arm them and not the time to be forcing them to the negotiating table.

If Geneva didn’t go ahead, he said, “it would be an embarrassing climbdown.” However, he didn’t rule out talks going ahead, pointing to a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland this month as crucial for resetting the agenda.

“For all the reasons that the Americans are reluctant to get involved in Syria ... they don’t want to have a half-hearted attempt at diplomacy and fail.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 06, 2013, on page 3.

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