The Syrian conflict has dragged too long and with severe consequences for human welfare, territorial integrity, and development of Syria. It has threatened regional stability in the Middle East, as regional powers and other major powers, jostle for influence and strategic victory in the state. The conflict, which started out with ‘peaceful protests’ in March 2011 has mutated into a protracted and increasingly sectarian civil war. Syria is deeply polarized internally.
But all has not been gloom for the country and its people. Between March 2011 and the present time, the international community has worked under difficult conditions to seek an end to the conflict. The methods range from international military strikes to political negotiations. The al-Assad government succeeded in averting American and international military action following a significant use of chemical weapons in the country’s war on August 21, this year. Assad escaped a military strike by seizing upon the diplomatic offer, worked out between the United States and Russia and approved by the United Nations Security Council, to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal to international control for total destruction, latest by mid 2014. The Assad regime is currently cooperating with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which began its work on October 1.
In the light of Assad’s cooperation with the OPCW, and his regime’s acceptance of Kofi Annan’s ‘six-point plan to end the Syrian conflict’ since March 27, 2012 the international community once again sets their hopes on the next Geneva talks slated for late November, 2013 to be able to set straight the political instruments for ending the conflict and producing a new and inclusive government. At the center of the international community’s renewed effort to restore order in Syria is the result of the June 2012 Geneva 1 talks which produced what is popularly known as the Geneva Communique. It adopts the ‘six-point plan’ of Kofi Annan and has been endorsed by the UNSC. But there are challenges along the road.
First, the Syrian National Coalition, the face of the opposition groups, and Assad’s government have continued to issue incompatible demands. The opposition demands that neither President Assad, nor his close associates, should be a part of the transitional government arrangement to be discussed in Geneva, this November. The Syrian government however interpretes the 2012 communique and various UNSC resolutions related to the transitional plan to mean that the Syrian regime ought to expand to include the various parties, in a sort of power sharing arrangement. The opposition rejects this interpretation.
The opposition is not convinced that a fair and equal deal could be made with the current regime. This sense of mutual mistrust is worsened by continued grappling for territorial control. The opposition, disappointed by the avoidance of external military intervention, still hopes for some military back up from willing regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The opposition may stick to this hardline view given what they may perceive as Saudi Arabia’s staunch support for the anti Assad cause following the country’s rejection of its non permanent UN Security Council seat, citing among other reasons, the failure of the international community to intervene decisively (militarily in favour of the opposition) in Syria. Saudi Arabi is not exactly pleased, as well, that Iran has been invited to take part of the Geneva 2 talks. Iran actively supports the Assad regime. It is important, therefore, if the planned talks are to succeed, that both Iran and Saudi Arabia push their clients to the negotiation table and reduce their ammunition supports to either side.
It is also important to note that the opposition is weakening from internal tensions and in-fighting. Some groups are beginning to lean towards al Qaida associated units, out of frustration at the West’s soft reaction to the Assad regime. Such cracks within the opposition make it more difficult to achieve nationwide concessions to ease off and decisively end the conflict at the Geneva 2 talks. Besides, the U.S-European community is wary of extending military support to groups that are probably aligned with terrorists. So this puts a lot of pressure on the National Coalition to deal with these perceptions or risk the loss of significant active backing from their supporters in the West.
What might we describe as a meaningful end of the Syrian conflict? Bendetta Berti suggests three markers, ‘a halt to violence; preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity, and restoration of an effective central control’ over the whole of Syria.
Benedetta, B. The road to Geneva 2, Oct 28, 2013 http://www.inss.org.il/index.aspx?id=4538&articleid=5894
Kofi Annan’s 6 point plan, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10583doc.htm