Syria talks may yield little result

While the sides argue over issues,fighting drags on, devastating villages and cities, and slaughtering citizens.

The US-Russian sponsored Syrian international peace conference that met in the Swiss resort of Montreux on January 22 to jump start talks between the government and Western-backed opposition was a set-up that nearly drove the government delegation to depart. Of the 40 countries invited, 20 belong to the anti-government ‘Friends of Syria’ group led by Washington, London and Paris. Iran, an ally, along with Russia, of the Syrian government, was disinvited when Tehran refused to follow the rules laid down by the US and its partners.

Their foreign ministers roundly attacked president Bashar al-Assad and insisted that he should not be part of the transitional authority mandated by a conference in Geneva - called "Geneva I". US Secretary of State John Kerry set the tone, accusing the government of massive human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He referred to a report published ahead of the conference which alleged the torture and killing of 11,000 Syrian political prisoners.  Commissioned by Qatar, Assad’s arch enemy, the report was based on photographs said to have been taken by a defected police photographer and smuggled out of Syria.

The aim of this effort was to pile pressure on the government to yield its veto on the role and composition of the transitional authority mandated to write a constitution and prepare for elections. The government rightly argues that since this body must be approved by both sides, each has a veto on its composition and role and insists on Assad's involvement. Ten countries - India, Russia, China, Indonesia, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa - were more balanced in their approach, calling for the international community to focus on providing victims of the civil war with aid and pressing both sides to end hostilities that have slain 100-130,000, one-third civilians.

Moving away

Indian minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid made the point that the "lethal conflict" in Syria, a key West Asian country, "threatens the stability and security of this strategic region" as it has opened up sectarian fault-lines and transformed Syria into a base for radical fundamentalist jihadis. On January 23, most of the foreign ministers attending the Montreux event shifted to the World Economic Forum in Davos while the two Syrian delegations, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and the travelling media circus moved to Geneva where Brahimi opened mediated negotiations with the delegations. He has begun discussions on confidence-building issues such as imposing local ceasefires, ensuring humanitarian access to civilians trapped between warring sides, and freeing prisoners.

This would be a winning approach if both sides could deliver. The government can play its part if insurgent forces on the ground - Syrian rebels dominated by fundamentalists and foreign jihadis - reciprocate. However, the expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition, the only group represented in the talks, has no control of these forces and has been repudiated by key factions, including the mainly Syrian Islamic Front and al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Ahead of the effort to bring the sides together, dubbed "Geneva II," about one-third of the members of the Coalition stormed out in protest against the decision of its president Ahmed Jarba to go to Montreux and Geneva. The Coalition formed under the auspices of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and portrayed by the Friends of Syria as the main opposition grouping, has no support or credibility inside Syria. The coalition's military wing, the Free Syrian Army, has been marginalised by fundamentalist and jihadi forces. It is ironic that Saudi Arabia is the main sponsor of the Jarba faction of the Coalition, which voted to take part in talks, as well as of the Islamic Front which called them ‘hollow’ and rejected participation.

Two key domestic groups invited to participate, the National Coordination Board and the Kurdish Democratic Union, rejected the invitation because they refused to sit in a Coalition-led delegation, depriving it of an in-country base. The absentees condemn foreign involvement and take the line that Assad must eventually leave but argue that he must be part of the transition. His troops and security forces provide Syria with a measure of stability and prevent the country from becoming a "failed state" like Iraq and Libya.

While the sides argue over issues, the fighting drags on, devastating Syria's cities, towns, villages and countryside and slaughtering its citizens. During the past four years, 2.5-3 million Syrians have been driven from their country while another six million are internally displaced.

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