THE first face-to-face meeting between Syria’s government and the opposition hoping to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad started and ended after barely half an hour yesterday.
The two sides faced each other in silence as a United Nations mediator laid the groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war. After tense days spent avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad’s handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition gathered briefly in Geneva around a U-shaped table, then emerged and went their separate ways, using different doors to avoid contact.
Only the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, spoke, according to Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition’s representatives.
He said: “It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children.”
He added that everyone remained calm.
The two sides were distant going into the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing less than Assad’s departure.
Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table could be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that has killed at least 130,000 people.
Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mikdad said before the meeting: “Today we shall start with modest ideas and we will build on them to achieve something and we move gradually to bigger and bigger issues.”
Abdeh said the antagonists would face each other again later but would only address Brahimi, not each other.
First on the agenda was a ceasefire in Homs. Syria’s third-largest city became a major centre of resistance and reprisal early on in the uprising. Neighbourhoods in its old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of one million, but most residents have since fled.
Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, Abdeh said fighters in Homs – where only a few parts of the old city remain in rebel hands – had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.
Syria’s civil war started in 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad, who used the military to quell demonstrations. A quarter of the country’s population has since been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the US have taken opposite sides in the war, with Russia selling Assad military hardware and vetoing UN security council action.
The US has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.
Azeem Ibrahim: ‘Without the major players the Swiss conference is ineffectual’
The United Nations conference under way in Switzerland about the future of Syria has some notable absentees. There are no representatives of the jihadi rebels or al-Qaeda, and Iran was disinvited at the last minute to prevent a boycott by the main opposition party.
Without the major players, instead of being a forum to discuss a ceasefire, it has become an opportunity for leaders to accuse one another and for the Syrian foreign minister to grandstand. The two sides seem impossibly far apart, and Syria’s bloody conflict seems set to continue.
Representatives of the Assad government are not there to seek compromise and are interpreting events to suit the narrative imposed by the president. His use of chemical weapons against his own people and the recently revealed atrocity of 11,000 detainee deaths have been brushed aside amid accusations of “foreign terrorism”. It is a bitter irony that Syria has long been in collusion with jihadi terrorists, including al-Qaeda and its militia, Isis, to maintain its oil supplies. Assad also released from prison in 2011 many Salafists and jihadists who infiltrated the then peaceful protest movement, a double game described as bare-faced hypocrisy.
Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless resilience is based on a loyal army and superior arms. Allies Russia and Iran have enabled him to retain control over most of Damascus; only the poorest regions of less strategic value have been conceded. In contrast, the rebel militias are fragmented and without a unified political military command. Infighting among rival militias has escalated recently with more than 1,000 deaths reported. A new Islamic Front may become an effective force against both the moderate opposition and Assad.
Two years after Hillary Clinton called him a “dead man walking,” Assad’s fear-mongering propaganda against jihadi terrorists has some in the US suggesting that a rebel victory would be worse than an Assad win. The narrative exists that both Assad and the US are united in their wish to control jihadi ambitions for an Islamic state, but there is no evidence, but wishful thinking, to support this.
Western powers and the Syrian opposition insist that Assad must go before Syria can negotiate a compromise. But Assad is adamant that he is still a legitimate elected leader to be confirmed in elections held this year. The fact the Assad regime has never held true elections is conveniently overlooked. No credible election could be held in a country so divided, with more than six million citizens internally displaced and some two million living as refugees abroad. While Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem is equally insistent Assad will stay, the conference in Switzerland is ineffectual.
What the conference should be trying to achieve is hopefully being discussed behind closed doors. Of paramount importance is a ceasefire and an agreement from all countries to stop arming the Syrian army and the jihadists. The formation of a balanced and credible transitional government is vital so the process can begin of restoring civil society at the grassroots level.