The second session of the Geneva 2 Conference has ended in failure – as was widely anticipated – due to the wide gap between the two sides’ positions. They were not even able to agree an agenda, with the opposition wanting to prioritize the formation of a transitional government, while the regime wanted to focus on terrorism, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
At the final press conference, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi surprised with an apology to the “Syrian people” that no progress had been made. It was as if he was announcing the death of the Geneva process, the end of negotiations and the political process; at least for the time being.
The only ray of hope emerging from Brahimi’s concluding remarks was the news that both sides have agreed the contents of the agenda for a third round of talks; items include terrorism, transitional government, national institution building and national dialogue. However, as we have seen, it is the order of these items which cause entrenched positions in this round, and neither has committed to an actual date for the next.
Behind the scenes at Geneva, a possible change of tack was being considered by the West. This would see the revival of the military option set in a moral context whereby the regime is held responsible for thwarting the Geneva process. The aim is to pressure the regime, with threats of a military intervention, to give more ground in future negotiations.
In fact preparations are underway, and have been since before the latest round of talks both practically and in the media.
On Friday, Jordanian King Abdullah II met President Barack Obama at the White House and their discussions focused largely on Syria; the US President emphasized the need to take strong steps to press the regime to accept a political solution. Jordan is one of the biggest recipients of US aid, collecting around $1 billion a year. Jordan’s strategic position as a Syrian neighbour is key to sustaining the rebel forces with arms, men and funding.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia intends to provide the armed opposition with surface to air missiles, which would greatly improve the opposition’s capabilities on the ground, particularly given the regimes penchant for dropping barrel bombs and other explosive devices on the population.
The Deputy Secretary of the Syrian National Coalition delegation said in advance of the Geneva talks that America’s “Plan B” for Syria – i.e. military intervention – would be applied immediately in the event of failed negotiations.
Russian media reports suggest that both the US and France are readying military interventions to halt the advance of the Syrian army in the Kalamoon area in particular; actions being considered include air raids and providing the opposition with very sophisticated weapons.
In the absence of a UN Security resolution authorizing intervention, the US and its European and Arab allies may rely on accusations that the Assad regime blocked a negotiated settlement at Geneva as cover for military intervention. Military intervention, if it happens, will be limited in order to put pressure on the Syrian regime to bow to the basic aims of the Geneva Process which includes establishing a transitional government with full powers.
It is no coincidence that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef visited Washington last week. He has strong ties to Washington and recently replaced the hawkish Prince Bandar bin Sultan as Interior Minister. Meanwhile, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Turkey on Friday where he had a private meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
President Obama will visit Saudi Arabia next month, a gesture of reconciliation between the two countries which fell out over the Iranian file and Obama’s failure to militarily strike Syria when it stepped over the chemical weapons “red line” he had previously established. Perhaps the gift Obama will carry to Riyadh this time will be news of an imminent intervention.
An important consideration is what is Russia’s position on all these developments? He will be well aware of them in the context of Moscow’s recently concluded arms deal with Egypt, designed to break that country’s forty-year dependence on US military aid. Putin has also endorsed military strong man, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi for President.
The risk is that the Syrian crisis will spill over its borders and see a return to a “Cold War” style stand off between Moscow and Washington after twenty years of peace.
The Syrian crisis has taken so many unexpected turns that nothing surprises us any more. If the period of fruitful co-operation between Russia and America comes to an abrupt end, we may well see a return to square one, with regional polarization restored around two foreign superpowers.