Making War and Peace in Geneva

BEIRUT—The international gathering in Montreux Wednesday that precedes the Geneva II Syrian peace conference Friday got off to a bumpy start with the dispute about whether or not Iran would attend. The issue is important not only because of the specific matter of Iran’s presence, but also for what it tells us about the larger circles of contestation that are reflected in this process.
In the end, the UN Secretary-General withdrew his invitation to Iran to attend the talks, because Iran did not clearly accept the mandate and purpose of the meetings, which was the 2012 Geneva I declaration calling for a transitional governing mechanism in Syria that would be formed by mutual consent, and presumably to replace the Assad government and dynasty. Three separate issues are worth noting in this whole matter: Prospects for a negotiated resolution of the war in Syria; Iran’s role in Syria alongside other regional players like Saudi Arabia; and, the role of the major external powers, namely the United States and Russia.
These three separate factors that converge here also remind us why Iran is such a significant player in the region and needs to be involved in any discussions about Syria, given its determination to safeguard what it sees as its national interests and not be pushed around by regional powers like Saudi Arabia or global ones like the United States.
The prospects for a negotiated end to the war in Syria are slim, and reflect above all the military balance of power on the ground, which is broadly stalemated right now. It is unlikely that the Syrian government or opposition might muster enough force to defeat the other and prevail in this contest in the coming months.
The very concept of a transitional governing authority with full executive powers to replace the Assad government is also so vague that it is meaningless beyond serving to bring the parties together in Switzerland. Assad understands it to mean a degree of domestic reform and liberalization under his family’s tutelage, while the opposition understands it to mean that Bashar Assad will step down and allow a new, more democratic and pluralistic, governing system to take hold. It is possible to see the issues of the military balance on the ground and the transitional governing mechanism coincide one day soon.
For example, should massive new military assistance to the opposition tilt the war to its advantage and leave Assad weak and vulnerable, his main state allies Russia and Iran could cut their losses and seek a dignified exit for him, similar to the scenario that played out in Yemen in 2011, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down but remaining in the country and influential behind the scenes. A weakened Assad might opt for this scenario in the future, but not today.
These internal issues will be determined largely according to the balance of power on the ground, but this in turn is heavily influenced by the role of foreign parties inside Syria, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Russia, Turkey, Jordan and the United States. In the past three years the external players have fought a vicious proxy war that is part of a wider regional struggle for dominance that also plays itself out in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. All the Syrian parties and their main foreign backers in Geneva gather to discuss peace-making while they also fervently fuel a domestic battle that often veers into brutality and even barbarism.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, and also the United States and Russia, face off inside Syria because they feel that a Syrian government that is close to them would serve their regional interests. All the external players pour so many material and political resources into the battle in Syria because they feel they cannot afford to lose, or else they would deeply damage their standing and their interests across the entire Middle East.
The third dimension of the Geneva talks is the fascinating diplomatic ballet that the United States, Russia, the UN, Syrian parties and Iran have played in recent weeks, culminating in the invitation and disinvitation for Iran to participate in Geneva. Like the long dispute over Iran’s nuclear industry that was finally resolved through a negotiated agreement that met the needs of both sides, this dispute is both substantive (regarding the technical terms of reference of the talks) and symbolic (regarding whether Iran must meet American dictates in order to join the process). Iran has made it clear it will not join a process that a priori expects Assad’s demise, and it certainly will not join a process whose rules, it feels, are written in Washington, and include public demands for Tehran to behave in a certain manner.
These issues will be with us for some time, unless the power balance on the ground in Syria changes suddenly.

Rami G. Khouri
is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri
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