February 8, 2014

Conference on Syria “Geneva-2”: Round One

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Oleksiy Volovych.

January 22 in the resort town of Montreux in western Switzerland, was held the International Conference on the peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict, “Geneva-2”. In the Conference participated representatives of 45 countries and international organizations. After the Conference in Montreux in the UN Headquarters in Geneva from 24 to 31 January was held the first round of direct inter-Syrian talks.

The situation in Syria on the eve of the Conference

According to international organizations, during the conflict in Syria since March 2011 by now more than 130.000 people have been killed, three times as many have been injured and maimed, and 2.4 million people have become refugees. In the Syrian conflict clashed, on the one hand, the leadership of President B. Assad, all government agencies and the Army, which are supported by the majority of Syria's population (60 % to 75 %). On the other hand, armed groups, mainly represented by radical Islamists, many of whom (50 %) came from Arab and Muslim countries, including “Al- Qaeda” militants.

In his address to the nation on January 5, 2013, Syrian President B. Assad offered a plan for settlement of the Syrian crisis, including the following items: putting an end to the supply of arms to anti-government armed groups; cessation of violence by all parties; beginning of a national dialogue with all opposition forces except those whom B. Assad called “Western puppets”.

Assessments of the plan by the Russian Federation and the United States were absolutely opposite. While the Russian Foreign Ministry said in its statement that “B. Assad's proposals can help settle the Syrian crisis on the basis of the Geneva Declaration”, Washington called B.Assad's plan “another attempt to stay in power”. The EU leadership evaded making a clear assessment, having announced that it would study B. Assad's plan.

The situation around Syria escalated to the limit after the events of August 21, 2013, when, as a result of the use of chemical weapons in the vicinity of Damascus, more than 1400 people were killed. Syrian leadership and the opposition blamed each other for the use of chemical weapons. August 25, U.S. President B. Obama held in the White House a meeting with his National Security Advisers, following which he ordered the Defence Ministry to strengthen the Naval grouping of the USA in the Eastern Mediterranean.

UK and U.S. forces around Syria UK and U.S. forces around Syria. Infographics: "Golos Rossii" "Voice of Russia"

August 29, 2013 at a meeting of permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China vetoed the draft resolution, which allowed attacks against Syria. August 31, U.S. President B. Obama in his address to the American people announced about his decision to use military force against Syria. At this, he said that he had the right to start the military operation even without the approval of the U.S. Congress and the UN Security Council, which, in his opinion, “has proved its inability to solve the Syrian issue”. This B. Obama's adventurous statement caused a wave of outrage in many countries, the United States included.

The world found itself on the verge of a new large-scale war in the Middle East, with unpredictable by their danger for the whole world, consequences. And only the put forward on the 9th of September Moscow's initiative to put under international control Syrian chemical weapons and then to destroy them, defused tensions and moved aside the possibility of American military intervention against Syria. September 14, Foreign Ministers of Russia and the United States expressed the need for a political settlement of the conflict within the framework of the international conference “Geneva-2”

Evidence of the involvement of Syrian authorities in the use chemical weapons has never been found, which fact was confirmed by the UN special commission. It made more complicated the USA and its allies' attempts to use military force against Syria. Besides, Turkey and Jordan decided to refrain from providing its territory to strike at Syria. On the other hand, in the military coup in Egypt on 30th June last year, to power in this country came the military, wishing to restore normal relations with Damascus. The Arab League, whose headquarters was at that time in Cairo, gave up the idea of ​​military intervention into Syria. This, in its turn, weakened the positions of Qatar, Turkey and the KSA, — the main sponsor of the Syrian opposition and foreign mercenaries.

Besides, the draft resolution in support of attacks at Syrian military targets did not receive the required majority either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress. Moreover, public opinion polls conducted by Gallup, showed that as of September 12, 2013, 62% of U.S. citizens were strongly against Washington's military adventure in Syria. As a result, B. Obama's administration was forced to renounce the use of military force in Syria.

In recent months, almost non-stop there are hostilities between government forces and armed groups of opponents of Syrian President B. Assad. Syrian government troops have managed for several months to keep the initiative and cause significant losses to both, the opposition Syrian Free Army and foreign Islamist formations. Government forces have pushed rebels in the Northern Province of Aleppo on the Turkish border.

May 20 Bashar Assad troops took control of much of city of Al-Quseir (30 kilometers south of the city of Homs).
 Bashar Assad's troops took control of the most of the city of Al-Quseir on May 20 (30 kilometers to south of  Homs city)

The crush by the government forces and formations of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” of the largest militant base at the beginning of June 2013, in the battle for the strategic city of Al-Qusayr, located about 15 km off the border with Lebanon, was a turning point in confrontation between the government and opposition. To the armed opposition Al-Qusayr was very important as a transit base, through which came the supply of arms and ammunition and were moved groups of Arab mercenaries. The defeat of the opposition in the Battle of al- Qusayr deepened disagreements and internecine struggle in its ranks. Opposing opposition groups began to blame each other for failures.

On the eve of the Conference, “Geneva-2”, sectarian clashes between opposition groups and foreign mercenaries got intensified. In the past two months there had been armed clashes between militants of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” group and other groups of both, moderate and radical Syrian opposition, in particular — “Jabhat al-Nusra” and “Ahrar ash-Sham”. According to the organization Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in January 2014 alone, the number of victims of internecine clashes exceeded 1.800 people dead and more than 3.000 wounded. The main reason for clashes was mainly territorial disputes over control of Syrian oil regions. Blood feuds have considerably weakened the rebel forces and caused confusion in the West, having made it go to the peace talks with B. Assad's “regime”.

It should be noted that from the civil war in Syria suffers not only the Syrian population. Thus, as a result of fighting between supporters and opponents of President B. Assad, a Palestinian refugee camp, “Al-Yarmouk” in the outskirts of Damascus was under siege, where more than 200 thousand Palestinians are staying in terrible conditions. The UN agency on assistance to Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) for three months could not deliver food to the camp. As a result several hundred Palestinians died of starvation. Delivery of humanitarian supplies to the camp “Al-Yarmouk” was partially resumed only in late January this year.

Who is who in Syrian opposition?

George Sabra

George Sabra

Syrian opposition remains fragmented politically and organizationally. Opposition groups of different orientation, fled abroad dissidents and deserters from the army turned out unable to overcome internal strife and ideological differences. Syrian National Council (SNC) is the first coalition of opposition groups formed in October 2011. SNC's Head is a former Communist George Sabra.

In November 2012 in Doha (Qatar) was created another opposition alliance — National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC). 22 seats out of 60 in the Council of the Coalition have been allocated to the SNC. The Coalition also includes numerous groups of Syrian immigrants and oppositionists inside the country. According to some reports, by December 12, 2012, SNC was recognized by more than 100 countries as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. At the same time SNC was recognized by not all groups of internal and external Syrian opposition and not by all Arab countries, including neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

Brigadier General Salim Idris
Brigadier General Salim Idris

SNC has offices in France, Germany, Hungary, the UK and Qatar. On the 26-27th March, 2013 at a summit in Doha SNC officially received the place of the SAR in the Arab League. December 9, 2012 at a meeting of SNC leadership, was formed the Supreme Military Council, headed by Brigadier General Salim Idris, the Commander of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA).

Sheikh Mouaz Al Khatib

Sheikh Mouaz Al Khatib

The first Head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was elected Imam of a mosque in Damascus, Sheikh Mouaz Al Khatib. July 6, 2013 in this post he was succeeded by the associated with Saudi Arabia, Ahmed al-Assi Jarba. In spring of 2013 Syrian National Coalition created the so-called interim transitional government, the first Prime Minister of which became a protégé of Qatar, a U.S. citizen Ghassan Hitto, who in September 2013 was replaced by a moderate Islamist Ahmed Tu'mah. In August 2013 the SNC Headquarters moved from Cairo to Turkey.

The internal constructive opposition is represented by the established in June 2011, National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change (NCC), which includes 16 left and three Kurdish political parties. In contrast to the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition, NCC comes for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis. NCC local organizations to some extent co-operate with the authorities, but at the same time are demanding reforms. NCC has its armed resistance as a defence against anti-government terrorist groups.

NCC denies arming the Syrian opposition from abroad and opposes foreign military intervention. NCC leaders accused the Syrian National Council and National Coalition of receiving help from Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, which provide rebel groups with basing, financial support and weapons.

Syrian Kurdish Supreme Committee (SKSC) was formed in July 2012 by the Democratic Union Party (DUP), on the one hand, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) — on the other, on the initiative of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) of Iraq Mas'ud Barzani. KNC joined the National Coalition in November 2013. As a result of disagreement between different Kurdish organizations, none of them was represented at the conference “Geneva-2”.

Syrian opposition fighters
Syrian opposition fighters AP Photo/Narciso Contrera

As of December 2013, in Syria there were about 1 thousand anti-government armed groups, totaling about 100 thousand fighters. Small armed “partisan” units operate at the local level, and large groups have their subunits all over the country. Armed opposition groups often get united into temporary situational alliances. Let's mention the most important of them:

1. Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011 from the former Syrian officers deserters who had fled to Turkey. It was led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad. Many armed groups have announced about their belonging to FSA, but the FSA's Commandment has had no control over them and their actions. Turkey and the Gulf Arab states give logistical support to the FSA through finances, supplies of arms, ammunition and military equipment. The FSA interacts with some armed groups: “Mujahideen (martyrs) of Syria”, “Northern Storm”, “Ahrar Souriya” (free people of Syria) and others.

2. Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) was formed in September 2012. It includes about 20 rebel groups of Islamist orientation, the most infamous of which are Al-Farouk Battalion, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Fath, Liwa al-Islam, Sukur al-Sham, and others.

3. Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) was formed in September 2013, includes about 50 Islamist armed groups operating in the area of ​​Damascus. Some experts say, the formation of “Jaish al-Islam” was Saudi Arabia's attempt to create an alternative to the increasing influence of jihadi groups directly associated with “al- Qaeda.”

4. Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) is a coalition of 11 Islamic groups, formed in December 2012. The leading role in the SIF plays the “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya” (Islamic Movement of Free People of Syria) formation. The SIF calls for the establishment in Syria of a Sunni Islamic state based on “Sharia”.

5. “Independent” Islamist groups: “Alva Ahfad al-Rasul” (Brigade of Prophet's grandchildren), “Dzhabgat Isala wa al-Tanma” (Front of Independence and Development), “Committee Duru' al-Thawra” (Committee “Shields of the Revolution”), “Tadjammu' Ansar al-Islam” (Community of advocates of Islam), “Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade”.

6. Jihadist groups of foreign, mainly Arab, mercenaries:

  • “Jabhat al-Nusra” (Victorious Front) — the most powerful Islamist militant group operating in 10 out of the 14 Syrian provinces.
  • “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), established in April 2013 as a counter-balance to the “Frente al-Nusra”, is based mainly in Northern and Eastern provinces of Syria.
  • “Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar” (Army of martyrs and associates), was founded in March 2013, consists of foreign fighters, mainly from the North Caucasus. The goal of this organization, as well as of many other Islamist groups is creation of an Islamic state in Syria. The grouping is headed by Chechen jihadist Omar Al-Shishani.

7. The main armed Kurdish groups are the “People’s Defence Units” (YPG), formed in March 2013 to protect Kurdish settlements from Islamists' attacks. The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, acting in the North-Eastern parts of Syria with a predominantly Kurdish population.

Training camps preparing militants for anti-government groups are located at the territory of Turkey and Jordan. In their training and weapons are involved representatives of special services of NATO countries and of some Arab countries. Financial assistance comes mainly from monarchical Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf.

Preparations for the Conference

Speaking about preparing the peace conference “Geneva-2”, it should be noted that from the very beginning of the Syrian conflict, Russia has been playing a major role in trying to resolve it peacefully. February 7, 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Director of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Mikhail Fradkov visited Damascus and met with Syrian President B. Assad, who confirmed his commitment to dialogue with the constructive part of the Syrian opposition. However, the Syrian National Council rejected the Russian initiative for a dialogue, demanding unconditional B. Assad's resigning from the position of President.

May 7, 2013 at the meeting in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed on the need to encourage the Syrian government and opposition to find a political solution to the crisis within the framework of the international conference “Geneva-2” on the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria. During the Syrian conflict, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has visited Moscow for talks at the Foreign Ministry four times: in April 2012, February 2013, September 2013 and January 2014. Applying mediation efforts, Russia has been receiving in Moscow various delegations of the internal and external Syrian opposition.

The first International Conference on the peaceful settlement of the situation in Syria “Geneva-1” was held in Geneva on 30 June, 2012. This Conference was held within the framework of the “Action Groups on Syria”, initiated by the then Special Representative of the UN and the Arab League on Syria Kofi Annan. The Conference was attended by Foreign Ministers of five countries — the UNSC permanent members: Great Britain, China, Russia, USA and France, as well as Turkey, Qatar, Iraq and Kuwait. Also to the meeting were invited UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Secretary General of the Arab League N. Al- Arabi. The main topic of discussions was to discuss the conditions for the implementation of the plan of the UN and LAS Special Envoy Kofi Annan on the peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict. The result of difficult discussions was the so-called “Geneva communiqué”, which provides, inter alia, the establishment of a cease-fire in Syria and creation of transitional government of national unity, composed of representatives of both, government and opposition. However, due to the intransigence of both, the participants of the Conference and parties to the conflict, the plan failed to be implemented, and K. Annan had to abandon his mission.

September 27, 2013 The UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2118 in support of the made on the same day in The Hague decision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on putting under international control Syrian chemical weapons with their liquidation later. This event has played an important role in creating an enabling environment for the implementation of the US-Russian initiative to convene an international conference to settle the conflict in SAR. In turn, this also allowed to get the approval by the UN Security Council of the “Geneva communiqué” from June 30, 2012 — after more than a year since its adoption.

Meeting of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi

Meeting of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi

From September 2013 to January 2014 it took several rounds of three-party consultations in Geneva between S. Lavrov, J. Kerry and the special representative of the UN and the Arab League on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to prepare an international conference “Geneva-2”, the last of such rounds took place 13 January 2014.

On the eve of the Conference senior representatives of the conflict parties made ​​statements about their conditions of participation in the Conference. Thus, being December 30 on a visit to Beirut, Foreign Minister of SAR Muallem said, “Nobody can force Syria to renounce its sovereignty, and the opposition should get rid of the illusion that it will be given the power in Geneva. We're going to Geneva to see who of the oppositionists is against foreign intervention, rejects terrorism and is ready to participate in building the country's future”. According to the Minister, in case of failure of the Geneva Conference, the “national dialogue will be held under Syrian sky in accordance with the program of political reforms launched by the government of SAR”.

Syria's Permanent Representative to the UN, Bashar Al-Jaafari expressed disappointment at the fact that to the list of participants at the last minute were added ten new countries and at this Iran was excluded, which has created an imbalance in the forum's format. Representatives of the Syrian internal opposition and Syrian Kurds were not invited to Switzerland either.

Most of the countries represented at the Conference were against the Syrian leadership, headed by President B. Assad. Besides, the UN Secretary General sent an invitation only to the SNC and did not invite representatives of the internal legal Syrian opposition, representatives of which are in the Syrian coalition government. In other words, as a result of the USA's “strong recommendations”, the format of the Conference was formed by UN Secretary-General in such a way that it was weakening positions of the delegation of SAR.

Sheikh Ahmed Jarba

Sheikh Ahmed Jarba

January 5-6, 2014 in Istanbul, took place a meeting of the General Assembly of SNC on which the Head of the Coalition, Sheikh Ahmed Jarba was re-elected for a second term. However, January 6, 44 out of 120 members of this governing body, left the National Coalition because of disagreement with Ahmed Jarba's re-election to the post of its Head, as well as because of the split over whether to participate in the upcoming conference “Geneva-2”. Uncompromising position was occupied by the main group of the Coalition — the Syrian National Council.

Ten days before the start of the International Conference “Geneva-2”, in Paris took place the regular meeting of so-called “Friends of Syria”. It was attended by Foreign Ministers of 11 countries supporting the Syrian opposition (the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and the United States), as well as by the SC leader A. Jarba and his Deputies. The task of the meeting was its participants' attempt to convince all opposition forces of SNC in the need to participate in the Conference. Prior to the meeting of “Friends of Syria”, Syrian opposition leaders had stated that they would participate in the Conference only after they have achieved guarantees of Syrian President B. Assad's nonparticipation in the future transitional government. Despite the fact that no such guarantee could be given, the leaders of the National Coalition at the last moment did agree to take part in the Conference.

Meeting of the Friends of Syria in Marrakech, December 2012
Meeting of the Friends of Syria in Marrakech, December 2012

Until the very last day before the Conference it was not clear — whether the delegation of Iran — one of the few consistent allies of Damascus — would participate in it [1]. Representatives of the Syrian opposition — President of SNC Ahmad Jarba and Secretary General Badr Jamus — put forward a precondition of their participation in the Conference — to withdraw the UN's invitation for the Iranian delegation. Against Tehran's participation in the Conference were also USA, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who intend to overthrow B. Assad by all cost and to weaken Iran's influence in the region. After the UN Secretary-General had sent a last-minute invitation to Iran, and a few hours later withdrew it under pressure from Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “the Conference without Iran threatens to become a sham”.

In circumstances where between disparate units of the Syrian opposition and foreign mercenaries are taking place internecine fights against the background of successes of the government troops, the Syrian leadership does not have high hopes for the Conference. Thus, the Syrian Minister of National Peace-Making Ali Haidar on the eve of the Conference said that the talks in Montreux would not settle the Syrian crisis. According to him, the crisis will be resolved as a result of military victory of the Syrian state.

To be continued.

[1] Iran's non-participation in the Conference “Geneva-2” significantly reduces the chances of the ceasefire in the civil war in Syria. Iranian military aid to Damascus is varied: supplies of arms and ammunition, sending military advisers, financial assistance. Despite the large foreign exchange losses from international sanctions, Tehran continues to monthly spend 600-700 million US dollars to support the legitimate government of Syria. Iran's total expenditures in support of Damascus during the war are estimated by experts at $20 billion US dollars.