Will this be the 10 days that calms the world? Not as far as Syrian refugees in Lebanon are concerned. Although they are desperate to escape the destitution that war and exile have brought upon them, they harbor few expectations that the U.S.-Russian brokered Geneva talks starting today will herald an end to a Syrian conflict responsible for colossal misery—as of last count, an estimated 130,000 deaths and the displacement of millions.
In makeshift, trash-strewn camps where rats scurry through lean-tos and in unsanitary, rickety apartment blocks in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, many refugees are too preoccupied with their daily scramble for rent, medicines and food to talk about the prospects for Geneva 2. But amid their tumbling words describing their woes, they express disbelief much will come from the talks.
“We hope but don’t really believe—but we have to hope, what else have we?” sighs Maher al-Kashef, a Syrian doctor at a small free clinic that on average handles more than 300 sick refugees a day.
Skepticism is not reserved to the desperate refugees in Tripoli. “That the international conference on Syria will not produce an agreement is a foregone conclusion,” says Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a Washington DC-headquartered think tank. “Despite being badly bloodied on the battlefield, the Syrian protagonists are still far from ready politically to engage each other in substantive negotiation.”
Not all of the so-called protagonists will even be participating in Geneva.
The talks, which launched in Montreux, Switzerland today and will move to Geneva on Friday, have already flirted with collapse at every turn. Dangerous maneuverings in the run-up to the conference have threatened breakdowns even before diplomats arrived on Swiss soil.
The fractious Western-backed rebels in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) only agreed last weekend to attend but announced hours later they would withdraw when U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon almost casually invited Iran at the last minute, an offer he was forced to rescind under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in order to save the conference. Why he issued this late offer to Tehran is unclear but conflicting signals from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about whether Iran should be attending Geneva may have had much to do with it. “The State Department is not great on the details these days,” sniffs a European diplomat here in Beirut. “They seem to dot their ‘t’s’ and cross their ‘i’s’.”
So there will be no Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest political and financial underwriter with military advisers and fighters in the field. And absent, too, will be the leaders of the anti-Assad insurgents with the greatest power on the ground when it comes to the rebels: the Islamic Front, which broke with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army last autumn and are estimated to command 45,000 Islamist fighters, about half of all armed insurgents. They have scoffed at the whole idea of Geneva 2.
The leader of Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Islamist brigade and one with links to al-Qaeda, has warned that he will not recognize any Geneva-brokered agreement. “Whatever comes out of it, is binding only on the Syrian National Coalition. As far as we are concerned, we will continue the revolution until we restore our rights and our dignity,” said Hassan Aboud in a pre-conference interview with Al-Jazeera. His objective, he said, is an Islamic state. Much of the international media likes to describe the Western-aligned SNC as the main opposition group but that is questionable when it comes to the guns and the muscle.
Thus there will be no Islamic Front at Geneva2. And for that matter, no Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia movement and an Iranian client whose military expertise and commandos contributed to turning the battlefield for al-Assad last summer, raising the confidence of a regime that has since enjoyed gains on the ground.
In many ways, the nearly three-year-long civil war has turned Assad’s Syria into a vassal state of Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah. Iran’s friend, Russia, made much of the Iranian absence in Switzerland this morning when the conference opened in Montreux, with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insisting Iran should have been involved.
For some analysts and diplomats, the very fact that Geneva 2 is taking place is an achievement in itself, especially as Friday will mark the first time some of the opposition and regime representatives have sat opposite each other to talk. But despite their proximity at the conference, they remain miles apart in ideology. The SNC says al-Assad must be removed and, in keeping with the communiqué that set the agenda for the summit, they say Geneva should outline the arrangements for a transition government. It’s a position supported by John Kerry, who today said: “We see only one option: negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent…There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern.”
The Syrian government says Assad will stay, and insist that these talks should be about fighting terrorism. Speaking to Syrian state television, Assad said the infighting within the opposition, including extremist fighters linked to al-Qaeda, demonstrates why the summit’s focus should be on counter-terrorism. “The Geneva conference must lead to clear results regarding the fight against terrorism in Syria. More specifically, putting pressure on the countries supporting terrorism in Syria by sending fighters, sending money to terrorists organizations, sending weapons,” he said. This stance continues the convenient fiction he plays to—that all opposed to him are terrorists.
In the conference’s opening session this morning, speakers drawn from the 40 foreign ministers present emphasized that no breakthroughs are expected and that this was just the beginning of a lengthy process. That process is indeed likely to be prolonged, and maybe forlorn for some time to come. The agendas of the external actors—and this summit is really about the external actors and backers—are too divergent for a war-ending understanding to be agreed upon, let alone one that could help forge an agreement between Assad and Syrian rebels.
The best arrangement likely to come out of Geneva is some agreement on localized ceasefires and access for international agencies to supply relief aid to the hardest-hit areas. Such an agreement would allow Assad to portray himself as a humanitarian—quite the opposite of the leader of a regime that was accused this week of resorting to the horrific systematic torture and killing of an estimated 11,000 prisoners. And it would also allow the West to feel it is doing something to end the three years that have shaken the world.