Regional tiffs must not stop Syria talks

In spite of spoilers, Geneva negotiations must go ahead. Syria can't endure another year of conflict.

Recent attacks in Paris, Istanbul and Jakarta by Islamic State (IS) bombers and shooters have demonstrated that the world must act quickly to counter and crush this rapidly expanding cult of death and destruction. To do so, the cross-border war in Syria and Iraq must be ended, for these countries play unwilling host to IS, al-Qaeda and a collection of allied jihadi groups.

The roadmap for ending the war in Syria, where IS has established its ‘caliphate,’ was agreed in Vienna in mid-November and negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition are set to begin in Geneva on January 25.

The roadmap calls for a ceasefire between Damascus and opposition forces (excluding IS and al-Qaeda), talks bet-ween government and opposition leading to the creation of a transitional authority which will draft a new constitution and, by August 2017, hold elections.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has visited not only Syria but also regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia which are fighting a proxy war in Syria and Iraq, but he has not issued invitations.

Time is fleeting and people are dying. He has the full backing of the US and Russia which are on the same side in the battle against IS but disagree on if and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step do-wn. Russia insists Syrians must decide, the US says he must go before the proposed election.

While these two powers are eager for talks, de Mistura is well aware the US and Russia have differences with France as well as regional powers Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which have fuelled the insurgency against Assad. It has been taken over by jihadis, spread to Iraq, and enabled IS to target distant capitals. Saudi, Turkish and Qatari surrogates among the political and armed opposition are potential spoilers at the negotiating table.

France has called for Russian government to halt military operations against civilian areas without demanding the same of insurgent groups which have seized urban centres and, in many cases, hold their inhabitants hostage.

While Saudi Arabia said tensions with Iran should not threaten implementation of the roadmap, Iran warned it would withdraw from talks if they are not “fruitful” and accused Saudi Arabia of “playing a negative and unconstructive role”.

Opposition groups have serious differences. Defected Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab who heads the Saudi-backed effort said, “We cannot negotiate with the regime when there are foreign forces (Russians) bombing the Syrian people.” He does not demand external actors end their financial and military support for insurgents, thereby putting pressure on them to reach a deal with the government.

Hijab also refuses to name the 15-member opposition negotiating team chosen by his Riyadh-based committee. The Syrian government argues “terrorist” groups, including the Saudi-sponsored Army of Islam, cannot participate in talks. A list of “terrorist” factions was to be compiled but this seems to have been forgotten due to opposition from powers supporting groups that might be included on this list.

Equal standing

The Syrian Democratic Council formed last month by US-sponsored secular Kurdish and Arab militias and political organisations demands a separate seat at the negotiating table and rejects any possibility of inclusion in the Riyadh-appointed team. Council spokesman Haytham Mannaa argued, “all components of the Syrian opposition have equal rights to participate in negotiations.”

A longstanding Syrian political activist, Mannaa insists some members of the Riyadh group “are against a political solution and will come (to Geneva) just to sabotage the talks”. Mannaa, a founder of the domestic opposition National Coordination Board (NCB), broke with its chief Hassan Abdul Azim who joined the Riyadh committee.

The Saudi-founded Army of Islam, which has representatives on Riyadh’s negotiations committee, has put forward contradictory demands: Anti-aircraft missiles to escalate its war effort and government goodwill gestures, including a ceasefire, prisoner releases and an end of sieges of insurgent held areas.

Another major armed faction, Ahrar al-Sham, has objected to Damascus-based NCB presence on Riyadh’s negotiating committee. Ahrar al-Sham, which is allied with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, could become a major spoiler in the field – as could Nusra and IS. Russia accuses Turkey of continuing to allow jihadi reinforcements to cross from its territory into Syria’s northern Idlib province, largely under the control of the Army of Conquest, dominated by Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

In spite of complications and spoilers, Geneva must go forward. Syria and its people cannot endure yet another year of conflict, destruction, and death. Jordan, Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, Turkey cannot provide for fresh flows of refugees. 

While countries across the world are struggling to counter IS activists recruiting foreign fighters and track IS veterans  returning home, Europe is trying to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking sanctuary while fearing that IS warriors are among them as was the case of the Istanbul bomber, Nabil al-Fadli, a Saudi-born Syrian.

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