Geneva II: prospects for a negotiated peace in Syria

With a fractious opposition internally and rival external powers engaged, the prospects are challenging for the ‘Geneva II’ conference on Syria. Threat of indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court could concentrate combatant minds.

Richard Reeve
29 November 2013

All wars end, sooner or later. With an interim deal signed on Iran’s nuclear programme, the great powers, middle-eastern diplomats and the mediators of Geneva are returning their attention to ending the war in Syria. As figures released by the Oxford Research Group (ORG) reveal, at least 113,735 Syrians had been killed by August, one in ten of them children. No conflict is currently deadlier. The announcement on November 25th that the ‘Geneva II’ conference would finally convene on January 22nd is thus overdue but good news. But what are the chances of it bringing peace?

Securing Syrian participation

If the responsibility for making peace rests with the Syrian actors to the crisis, the Geneva process has not yet secured domestic participation, let alone commitment. Convened in June 2012, the original Geneva conference was a meeting of the Action Group for Syria, an initiative co-sponsored by the United Nations and the League of Arab States and including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (‘P5’), the European Union, Turkey and, as office-holders within the Arab League, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. The ensuing Geneva Communiqué set out a six-step plan to peaceful transition. But this was a commitment of the action group, not the Syrian parties to the conflict.

Geneva II, by contrast, is all about brokering agreement between Syrians. This has become very much more difficult since mid-2012, when up to 25,000 Syrians had died in the conflict. Based on data up to the end of August 2013 analysed by ORG and ongoing casualties recorded by Syrian civil society, this figure is now around five times higher. Levels of destruction, displacement and brutality have similarly multiplied.

The character of the war has also changed, becoming increasingly sectarian and international. Sunni militants from across the Arab world and beyond have transformed the armed resistance. Shi’a militia from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Syria’s Alawite community have played a decisive role in recent regime offensives. Secular Kurdish militia control the north-east.

Healing these divisions may take generations. A cessation of violence is an immediate imperative. Securing a deal in Geneva is likely to be a case of a ‘good enough’ compromise from an ‘inclusive enough’ coalition of interests. This is likely to have at least three dimensions.

First is the problem of securing meaningful participation in even initial talks. The largest and most widely recognised opposition political force, the National Coalition, insists that the president. Bashar al-Assad, must leave power. The regime insists it will neither ‘talk to terrorists’ nor negotiate surrendering power. The National Coalition faces greater internal resistance to negotiating, while the Assad regime is reassured by negotiating from a position of increasing strength on the battlefield.

Second is the problem of linking political settlement with battlefield realities: without the buy-in of combatants, no peace deal will be ‘good enough’ to hold. The Syrian National Coalition and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) have never coalesced the myriad of armed local resistance units into a capable force. Pulverised by regime armour, artillery and air power, opposition forces have increasingly rallied from secular to Islamist command to accrue more effective leadership and resources. The Islamic Front merger of the largest such groups on November 22nd hugely undermines the Syrian National Coalition’s credibility. Conversely, association with the main armed Kurdish party has boosted the National Co-ordination Body, a moderate coalition of otherwise unarmed opposition parties still operating within Syria. The question of how civil-society groups or minorities opposed to armed struggle can be involved in Geneva II remains unresolved. These should not be considered niche perspectives.

Thirdly, ‘inclusive enough’ probably means sidelining some jihadist groups that in 2013 have become dominant in the east and major players on the northern (Idlib and Aleppo) and southern (Daraa) fronts. Funded, organised and to a significant extent manned from abroad, the extent to which these groups represent Syrian interests is debatable. Affiliation with al-Qaida suggests their leaders are opposed to political compromise. As with al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia and Mali, their radicalism may not be entirely shared by the Syrians who fight with them. The consolidation of the Islamic Front could serve to divert resources from them.

Securing international commitment

If the responsibility for making peace rests with the international actors who have waged a war through armed Syrian proxies, the Geneva process so far looks equally constrained. The global rivals Russia and the United States play a leading role in the action group but this leaves unrepresented rivals for influence in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region who are far more heavily committed in military and financial terms: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar are also key supporters (and hosts) of the armed opposition but their presence adds to the sense that the action group is weighted against the Assad regime, which may count only Russia, Iraq and, more loosely, China as allies in Geneva.

Bringing the Iranians and the Saudis into the process is thus crucial to the success of Geneva II. Iran’s opening to the west since the election as president of Hassan Rouhani is partly driven by the draining of Iranian resources in Syria. With the Assad regime advancing on the battlefield, and Russia and the western powers sharing its concern over the rapid rise of Sunni extremists on the Syria/Iraq border, Iran is more likely to back peace in Syria. Its interests include a veto on Sunni dominance and continuance of its access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, with Shi’as and Alawites representing under 15 per cent of Syria’s population, it is unclear how it can secure these interests without the Assads in charge.

Saudi Arabia looks a harder sell, not least because it feels its privileged status as US regional ally slipping as Iran pursues rapprochement. Recent Saudi tensions with Turkey and Qatar over influence in Egypt further undermine the unity of foreign pressure on the opposition. Yet reshuffles within the Syrian National Coalition and the Islamic Front since July suggest pro-Saudi elements have gained prominence in both. Riyadh may have the influence to bring these rivals together but only if the coalition assumes a more overtly Islamist identity. Reconciling Syria’s Sunni Arab majority and an Islamist agenda with either the Assad regime or western expectations is an enormous challenge, although the Geneva Process foresees a ‘national dialogue’ followed by constitutional and legal reforms to determine just such issues.

What way forward, then? It seems axiomatic that the rivalry between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours needs to be addressed directly through talks and confidence-building rather than through proxies over Syria. This is of particular urgency as talk re-emerges of a Saudi nuclear-weapons programme to counter Iran. It could also be that the Syrian National Coalition is overly constrained by its disparate backers’ demands for opposition unity. The divisions that have hampered it in making war may also hamper it in making peace. Representation in Geneva that allows disparate Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood, secularist and pacifist currents to express themselves may be beneficial.

Judicial pressure

While the parties and their regional backers remain far apart in their expectations, international judicial mechanisms have potential importance as leverage towards peace, in restraining the behaviour of combatant parties and eventually pursuing post-conflict justice. Although Syria has not signed the Rome Statute, international war crimes prosecutions could be brought if the UN Security Council refers Syria formally to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Due legal process and systematic gathering of evidence, including data on casualties, is crucial if the threat of prosecutions is to be realistic. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry established by the UN has been investigating a wide range of alleged crimes committed by both sides, with a view to future prosecutions. Growing P5 consensus on the need for a settlement could make referral to the ICC possible in the case of Syria, as it did over Sudan in 2005.

As with the now dissipated threat of military intervention, at least the threat of prosecutions could increase pressure on Syrian combatants to curb the most egregious atrocities and negotiate peace. With both Iran and Russia appalled at the use of chemical weapons in the country, pressure of prosecution could even be used to unstick the question of whether Assad presides over any transition government. 

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