Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 17-24 January 2014

Conflicts Forum

Geneva II: The outcome of the conflict in Syria will affect many things.  It will directly contribute towards shaping the geo-strategic balance in the region; it will either set limits to the rise of takfiri jihadism or, alternatively, infuse oxygen into its spectre across the region – and into Central Asia and North Africa; it will affect how the shifting world order unfolds – and Syria may yet prove to be the nemesis of Saudi Arabia; or not.  What is less certain is whether Geneva II will contribute substantively to this defining Syrian outcome – whatever that may be. Indeed, the prospects for Geneva are shrouded in uncertainty and even the conduct of the ‘process’ itself is unsure (absent any real agenda). It simply is too early to speculate on its larger meaning, if any.

What is Geneva II about? In the early days (Geneva I), this was clear: it was intended by the Americans and their allies to impose a ‘transitional government’, agreed at ‘top table’ (the Americans and allies – and possibly Russia), that would simply usurp all President Assad’s executive and security powers – leaving Assad deflated like a balloon, and able only to collaborate in his own political demise. (It was assumed at that time by the US and some Europeans, that the Syrian President would have little choice but to bow to the multitude and sheer power of the forces ranged against him). This initial plan, in essence, was a rehash of the Yemen model: the external powers would agree amongst themselves, in advance, the new dispensation for Yemen – and then their decision simply would be handed down to the Yemenis in a conference, to get on with, and to implement.

Geneva I failed, firstly because the US at that time was unwilling to entertain any real bipartisanism with Russia (that only became possible with the Chemical Weapons Accord); or in other words, ‘top table’ could not agree the dispensation; and, secondly, because edicts from ‘top table’ manifestly had no traction with the parties on the ground, particularly with the various jihadists, who neither accept democracy, nor the nation-state itself, nor secularism. In plain language, the ‘top table’ writ had little effect so long as the armed actors simply ignored it, knowing that external powers would continue their patronage of the military conflict.

Things now are very different (though the passé rhetoric about Assad’s necessary ‘transition’ lingers on, particularly with Kerry and the western think-tank ‘chorus’, but notably not with western security and intelligence services). Fears about the rise of jihadism, and its radiation outwards across the region and beyond, have since risen to primacy. No longer is Assad’s eviction a requirement, but rather his continuing in office has become a security necessity (both to implement the Chemical Weapons Accord, and to oversee the crucial war against the jihadists).

In a sense, Geneva II has evolved to become a rather unsteady bridge from the former (western) policy (of ousting Assad) into a policy of securing regional stability through the defeat of jihadism on its ‘front line’ in Syria. Not all in the US agree with this shift (and the Secretary of State has difficulty in admitting to it explicitly to his domestic constituency). The American and Gulf  interventionists’ ‘counter-strategy’ (in reaction to the US government tack) is to elevate the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people into a Trojan Horse which would carry the forces of external interventionism in its wooden belly – ostensibly for the best of motives, of course – to protect the humanitarian corridors, “to set up border crossings for the UN to enter Syria not controlled by Damascus…. [to] bring desperately needed help to hundreds of thousands” or to set up “safe areas” for the refugees.

Safe areas inside Syria – were they to be set up – would become a bridgehead (Benghazi style) for expanding foreign involvement inside the sovereign state. Russia and Syria have seen this ploy coming, and Syria has opted to pre-empt it by offering its own humanitarian and de-escalation proposals, on its terms.  Those terms would not include conceding any Syrian sovereignty. In a Geneva agenda, stripped of sensitive issues, the humanitarian issue therefore is likely to bubble up to become a phony war shrouding the true motives of the committed interventionists and those (such as Syria, Russia and Iran) who are determined to repel any form of western intervention (a lesson they have learned well from Libya).

For the US Administration, the main aim now seems limited to making a show of the Syrian government and a very spectrum-restricted ‘opposition’ talking to each other (hence the State Department briefing to expect a protracted process). Belatedly, the West seeks now principally to contain the conflict, rather than to see it inflame further, threatening its neighbours. It is unlikely that Washington believes that much can emerge from this conference, knowing that the opposition delegation carries almost no legitimacy on the ground in Syria and is riven by internal conflicts, and that President Assad’s position on the ground is strong. Nonetheless, the US and Russia may hope that this shaky start may mark the resurgence of some politics in Syria again, after a long hiatus. (The Syrian government recognises too the need for national dialogue in order to define the future of the state. It has already quietly been holding wide national discussions for some time now). But it will be a hard task to engender any real dialogue: the extent to which Ambassador Ford reportedly had to bully and threaten the opposition to attend Montreux is ample testimony to this.

So, to slide (as imperceptibly as possible) to a new US posture of accepting the reality that President Assad is here to stay (there is little, in truth, that the US can do to remove him at this stage) – whilst keeping the semblance of ‘faith’ with the SNC and with a domestic US opinion, now long conditioned to view President Assad as some sort of ‘monster’ – will not be easy for Secretary Kerry.  The Americans will know this.  Further complicating matters, is that the Syria issue is becoming entwined with the Iran negotiations. In reality it always has been, but a new twist in this ‘knot’ caused Iran to be ‘disinvited’ from Geneva, just at the point when the Americans needed the influence of Iran to be present, if Kerry is to make a smooth passage to a new policy of defeating resurgent jihadism. (The fall of Falluja to ‘al-Qae’da’ is symbolically hugely powerful in the US).

The new twist is that Russia and Iran are reported to be on the brink of a major oil deal (see here), which, from the US perspective, threatens the US doctrine that only by keeping the pressure of sanctions in place can Iran be brought to a ‘solution’ on the nuclear issue.  The export of 0.5 million barrels of per day to Russia, who will not itself import the oil, but simply ship it on to its Asian customers, is seen in Washington to mark potentially the beginning of the collapse of sanctions. The US Congress is obsessed with maintaining sanctions (with Israel’s backing); Russia is not. US spokespersons therefore have been mumbling about sanctioning Russia; but this is hot air. Russia never signed on to the American and EU unilateral sanctions, which Russia views as illegal, having no UNSC sanction. So far, the Russians have simply told American officials that the potential swap (Iran will get goods and currency) is none of America’s business.  (It will of course add a further 182 million barrels of oil per day to annual production, which will add to OPEC and Saudi pressures to cut back on production elsewhere, if a price of around $100 a barrel is to be held.)

But the rub here is precisely President Obama’s fragility in holding Congress at bay from legislating fresh Iranian sanctions – a move that would scupper the Iran negotiations.  Obama is quite vulnerable, but is managing so far to hold the line with Congress. The Russian deal with Iran might just sink that ability – given the (false) US narrative that only maintained sanctions can yield an Iranian back down (as perceived in Congress).  Probably the White House viewed both the Russia deal andIran going to Geneva was too much for the Congressional digestive system to manage. Something had to give: Iran was ‘disinvited’ to shore up Obama’s domestic claim that he is not being soft on the Iranians.  In sum, it suggests that the White House sets more store with the negotiations with Iran, than it sees fruitful prospects emerging from Geneva.

What does this say about Geneva II?  It says that the crucial conditions are still not in place for a political solution. Yes, ‘top table’ now have a base of understandings reached; yes, a pliant opposition delegation is sitting in Montreux; and both America and Russia are looking for de-escalation.  But are the regional patrons of armed conflict truly interested in de-escalation? Ambassador Ford’s briefing to the Syrian opposition (if accurately relayed) seemed to be telling them: ‘Yes’, in March they (the opposition) will observe big changes in Saudi policy (Bandar and Saud al-Faisal will then depart the scene), and Iran has reassured Russia and America that it too seeks de-escalation.  The question is: Will Ambassador Ford’s prediction hold true?  We shall have to wait until March to see.  For now, there is no sign of Gulf de-escalation on the ground throughout the Middle East (apart from in Lebanon, which we noted in last week’s Comment).

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