Sunday, March 16, 2014

Geneva’s Negotiations and Charades

The drive to end dictatorship in Syria is 34-month old, and would soon complete its third year of bloodshed, destruction, and pain. Throughout the 34 months of this bloody conflict, the Assad regime tried to end the uprising by brutal force, insisting on a military solution.

Young Syrians who took up arms to defend themselves and their neighborhoods against the onslaught of the regime’s sectarian forces, including fighters from Hezbollah, Iranian, and Iraq. Syrian fighters who confront the regime and its allies, likewise, insist that the only language the regime understands is the language of force, and continue their arm struggle to defend their towns and villages, and to fight the regime’s advanced military force. The result is a vicious conflict that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and bystanders, particularly in areas opposed to the regime.

After a long debate within the ranks of the Syrian National Coalition, and despite misgivings and lack of trust in the regime’s ability to seriously engage in negotiations aiming at finding a political solution, the majority voted to go to Geneva to try to find a political solution to the Syrian tragedy. Syrians are divided over Geneva talks. Some see in them a trap set for the opposition and an opportunity to rehabilitate the Assad regime. Others fear that the talks can provide the regime with much needed time to complete its military campaign, and to destroy whatever is left of population centers under opposition control. Many of us who decided to give Geneva a try believe, however, that Geneva represents the last opportunity to achieve political solution, and to give the international efforts, heralded by Russia and the United States, a chance to end violence in Syria.
Still many of us who participate in Geneva talks have real misgivings about the ability of a dictatorship to dissolve itself by its own decision. The Assad regime has systematically and deliberately transformed a peaceful drive towards reform into a full fledge internal war. It did that cleverly by applying a limited by lethal doses of violence to confront the peaceful demonstrations and by escalating the attacks gradually to the level of using warplanes, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons to crush the opposition by punishing it population centers. It has also encouraged radical groups to take up arms and released from its own prisons militant elements while arresting political and human rights activists committed to political struggle.
Finding a political solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Syria people would provide the best outcome. However, for the political efforts to bear fruits and provide a workable solution they must lead to real democratic transition and the removal of Bashar Assad from office. The end of dictatorship in Syria presupposes the removal of the dictator whose interests and decisions have led to the bloodshed the claimed the lives of over 136,000 Syrians and the destruction of 60% of the country’s infrastructure according to the most conservative figures. The Assad regime continues to resist the idea of Syria without Assad, and is intent on keeping the person responsible for all the deaths and destructions in power.
The first round of negotiations that lasted for 7 days are over now, but the regime has not shown any sign that it is serious on pursuing a political solution. It spent a good deal of the first round trying to divert discussions away from Geneva framework. It has shown so far that it does not have the political will to pursue the needed transition from dictatorship to democracy. The five most senior members of the regime’s delegation avoided all meetings, spending their time in the UN building’s lobby and backyard, speaking to media, leaving the task of negotiation to a team of 9 diplomats and bureaucrats. 
The regime’s negotiating team has done all it could to stir away from the real issues in Geneva communique. They have made no movement on lifting a water-tight siege from many villages and districts throughout the country, allowing no food or medicine, and starving thousands of people to death. The regime offered only to allow women and children to leave the area, but local populations rejected the offer, accusing the regime of forced displacement of population and starving local populations to submission. Both charges amount to accusing the regime of committing crimes against humanity and crimes of war.
No one should entertain any illusion that the Assad regime would voluntarily choose to dismantle the dictatorship it constructed over the last four decades. The Syrian state is being held hostage to Assad family. Bashar Assad’s brother and cousins control the elite military units as well as key positions in the security apparatus. They are surrounded by a group of professional politicians and bureaucrats charged with executing policies that aim at maintaining the regime in power. This makes the regime extremely inflexible and interested only in achieving an elusive military solution at any cost.
Geneva talks on Syria constitute the last window of opportunity for finding an amicable solution to the Syrian crisis. Geneva communique provides an important mechanism for implementing the various steps aiming at ending the conflict, including cease fire, release of prisoners of conscience, lifting siege from town and cities, and permitting freedom of expression and movement, long absent from the Syrian political experience. The mechanism is known as the Transitional Governing Body (TGB) with full executive powers, and membership named by mutual consent of the negotiating parties. In fact the formation of the TGB is essential for achieving all other steps, because changing the governing power in Syria is necessary for creating a political will interested in political transition and in ending dictatorship. Following instructions from its handlers in Damascus, the regime’s negotiating team has done everything it knows to block all attempts to discuss the TGB in the first round. The regime did all it could to undermine Geneva Talks by escalating attacks on population centers, killing over 650 civilians in 7 days by unleashing a barrage of explosive barrels, each of them is capable of destroying an entire building in seconds.
The second round must focus on the formation of the TGB in order to establish the body that will be charged with implementing Geneva communique. Failure of making progress on this issue means that none of the other steps mandated by the communique can be realized, and will signal the failure of the last opportunity Syrians have to arrive at a political solution. For Geneva  to succeed, the regime must be forced to stop its campaign of terror against the civilian population and must not be allowed to use its favored weapon, TNT barrels, the kill and destroy indiscriminately.
Will the international community, particularly Russian and the United States, allow the Assad regime to undermine the last chance the world has at avoiding a long term conflict with all the possibilities of becoming a regional conflict and jeopardizing regional and world peace? The coming weeks will shade light on this important question.

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