Geneva 2: Damascus knows it has the upper hand

The international community has failed to resolve the Syria crisis

The Syrian government were confident, determined and pulled no punches at peace talks in Switzerland with the opposition on Wednesday, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih in Geneva. And this confidence reflects their ascendancy on the battlefield and in the political arena.

Foreign minster Walid al Muallem excoriated the Syrian opposition present in Montreux at the “Geneva 2” talks. He called them “traitors” and “agents”; he accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of exporting terrorism and fueling al Qaeda-inspired extremism; and he said the West and Israel were enacting a plan to destroy the one Arab country that wouldn’t do their bidding.

Al Muallem’s message was welcomed by much of the world’s media in the conference venue. The Russians, Chinese and Iranians were there in force and many global south journalists were also sympathetic to his words, a sign that the stranglehold that the Western and much of the Arab media had over the Syria “narrative” is now over.

On the other hand, the Syrian opposition looked like they didn’t want to be there. Nevertheless, they accused Assad of serial human rights abuses, indiscriminate slaughter and medieval brutality. They insisted that he had to go as part of the transitional process.

Syrian president Bashar al Assad
Syrian president Bashar al Assad

But unlike the Syrian government whose political and military leadership is by and large unified, the Syrian opposition delegates in Switzerland have little or no authority with fighters on the ground. The main rebel fighting forces are now dominated by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS a well as the Saudi-backed Islamic Front. And many of them also consider the secular Syrian opposition leadership to be western-backed traitors.

Right from the beginning of the talks it was obvious that the two sides couldn’t stand each other and it’s still doubtful if they’ll sit in the same room as each other when the talks resume in Geneva on Friday. But given that the Syrian opposition at Geneva 2 has little authority wouldn’t it be better for the Syrian government to deal directly with the rebels’ main sponsors who do carry wight on the ground through their logistical and financial support – such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi?

However, although Damascus – backed by the Russians and the Iranians – clearly have the upper hand at Geneva 2, it would be a mistake to say they have triumphed.

The United States remain adamant in the most forceful terms that Assad can play no role in the future Syria, and Turkey and Saudi signalled that they would not change their policy of supporting the rebels. They have all simply invested too much time, money and effort to just give up the ghost. And as long as that support remains steadfast a total victory for Assad is impossible.

Waste of time?

So will Geneva 2 be remembered as a waste of time or can anything constructive come out of it?

Well the very fact that it is taking place is proof that the Syrian government and its supporters want to negotiate. They know they cannot achieve complete victory without some kind of Western/Gulf/Turkish cooperation. But they also know that they are strong enough not to have to make that deal immediately and not to have to make too many painful concessions.

On the other hand the West/Gulf/Turkey also want to negotiate. They know that the rebel forces are in political and military disarray and can no longer win the war or topple Assad.

The West is scared that al Qaeda might become uncontrollable and that it may one day threaten Israel and even the West again. The Turks are also concerned about Al Qaeda blowback and the Gulf monarchies are still determined to contain Iran.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in the future all these forces combine together to fight a common threat – the one group that will never be interested in negotiation, al Qaeda.

It’s also obvious that no peace deal will emerge from the negotiations currently taking place in Switzerland and neither will they stem the fighting on the ground. But they may signify the beginning of a process which leads to an eventual grand bargain between the great international and regional powers to end the Syrian war, although that day still seems at least a few years away.

@RMSalih

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