by Jim Lobe
via IPS News
The surprise accord reached by the U.S. and Russia in Moscow Tuesday to try to convene an international conference to resolve the two-year-old civil war in Syria as soon as the end of this month has been greeted with equal measures of hope and scepticism.
If nothing else, the agreement apparently persuaded at least one key party, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, to put off his previously reported intention to resign in the very near future.
“This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” he said in a statement issued by his office Wednesday. “The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step,” he added.
Analysts here, however, said that even with Tuesday’s accord, getting the two principal parties to the table would be extremely difficult under current circumstances.
“The more you learn about Syria, the more you realise how intractable the conflict is, and thus the more attractive a political solution appears to be,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “But you also realise the odds of putting one together are very long.”
The joint decision to revive the long-dormant Geneva Communique, which laid out the core elements of a political solution to the conflict war after a meeting of the U.N.-sponsored Action Group for Syria last June, was reached after deliberations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The communique called for an immediate cease-fire, the creation of a transitional government mutually agreed by representatives of both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his opposition, and the holding of new parliamentary and presidential elections.
But the process never got underway, in part because of the opposition’s demand – tacitly and sometimes explicitly backed by Washington — that Assad step down as a pre-condition for any negotiation and Moscow’s firm rejection of that position.
But the administration of President Barack Obama appears to have narrowed its difference on that score with Moscow.
At the time, many U.S. analysts, particularly those on the hawkish side of the spectrum, believed that the balance of power on the ground was moving in the opposition’s direction, and that it was simply a matter of time – months, if not weeks — until the regime crumbled.
But after months of bloody stalemate, it appears that the government’s forces have recently regained the initiative by systematically retaking control of strategically located towns and cities.
“If that’s true, the administration may have assessments to that effect in hand and feels it’s worth a try to see if the opposition can be compelled to engage while it still holds a reasonably strong hand,” according to Wayne White, a former top Mideast analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Indeed, Kerry appears to have accepted Moscow’s position that Assad does not have to step down in order for negotiations to get underway.
“(I)t’s impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things we know that have taken place,” he said during a press conference with Lavrov after the meeting.
“But…I’m not going to decide that tonight, and I’m not going to decide that in the end, because the Geneva Communique says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties …the current regime and the opposition.”
For his part, Lavrov, without mentioning Assad by name, said he was “not interested in the fate of certain persons”.
While Damascus remained silent Wednesday about the prospects for a negotiation, some opposition leaders rejected the initiative, while others expressed deep scepticism.
“Syrians: be careful of squandering your revolution in international conference halls,” warned Moaz al-Khatib, a former leader of the Arab League-recognised National Opposition Coalition (NOC).
At the same time, Col. Qassim Saadeddine, a spokesman for the rebel Supreme Military Council (SMC), the U.S. backed group through which Washington is currently funnelling intelligence and “non-lethal” military aid to fighters in the field, told Reuters that he didn’t believe “there is a political solution left for Syria. …We will not sit with the regime for dialogue.”
Whether that was the opposition’s final word remains to be seen, according to analysts here who noted that Amb. Robert Ford, who accompanied Kerry in Moscow, was on his way to Istanbul to talk with opposition representatives, apparently in hopes of bringing them around to a more positive response.
U.S. officials said they were hoping that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, the rebels’ main regional backers, would also cooperate in helping to persuade opposition figures to come to the table.
Two weeks ago, Obama hosted Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, at the White House, when he reportedly stressed the importance of a political solution in Syria and called on his guest to cease providing military assistance to the more-radical Islamist factions in the opposition. He will also be meeting here with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most important regional player, later this month to more closely align the two countries’ parties.
All of this comes amidst growing pressure here on Obama to escalate U.S. intervention in the crisis, particularly in the wake of still-unconfirmed reports that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons against rebel forces and growing fears that the war’s continuation threatens to destabilise neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Jordan which is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the more than 500,000 Syrian refugees who have flooded into the country.
Support is building in Congress for legislation calling on Obama to provide lethal military aid and training to the rebels, an option that the administration has said it is actively considering on its own if the chemical weapons charges are confirmed.
Obama has previously resisted increasing Washington’s military backing for the opposition and has tried to confine U.S. aid to humanitarian assistance, more than 500 million dollars of which has been provided to date.
Re-invigorating a diplomatic process for resolving the conflict thus looks increasingly attractive to the administration, although most analysts believe prospects for any immediate progress are dim.
“The chance of a diplomatic breakthrough coming out of the projected conference is at best modest,” according to Paul Pillar, a retired CIA veteran who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia.
“But it represents a more realistic hope for bringing a modicum of peace and stability to Syria in the foreseeable future than does stoking the civil war with more outside involvement in the military conflict. The fact that the United States and Russia could agree on any of this is a breakthrough of sorts,” he wrote in an email to IPS.
Landis agreed. “Whether the situation (for a successful negotiation) is ripe today is still debatable, because Assad still thinks he can win, and the opposition, with hundreds of militias, is too fragmented to negotiate,” he told IPS.
“But you have to get the international community open-minded to this kind of dialogue, and down the line, that may happen.”