Geneva 3: bringing peace to Syria or keeping Assad?

Geneva 3: bringing peace to Syria or keeping Assad?
Shocking diktats from the US Secretary of State to the Syrian opposition shows implicit support for Assad remaining in Syria; something that betrays millions of suffering Syrians.
6 min read
27 Jan, 2016
The talks in Geneva are not expected to conclude with a political breakthrough [AFP]

In the past, Syria’s ‘peace process’ has been a farce.  Something entirely detached from the realities of the Syrian war – a play without actors, as Rami Khouri put it.  But now it seems to be moving from farce into more sinister territory. 

According to a report, Secretary of State John Kerry demanded the Syrian opposition’s ‘High Negotiating Council’ accept a series of diktats constructed by Iran and Russia as preconditions for the upcoming negotiations in Geneva.

It goes without saying that the diktats are entirely favourable to Assad and, if accepted, would amount to the victory of Assad and the acquiescence to Iranian and Russian hegemony over Syria.  The diktats demand the creation of a ‘national unity’ government.  This is designed to co-opt the reasonable ground, allowing Iran, Russia and now seemingly the US to brand those who reject this as warmongers, despite the fact that this ‘national unity’ government would be headed by none other than Bashar al-Assad. 

This ‘national unity’ government headed by Assad would rule for a ‘transitional period, with no set timetable for his departure, after which there would apparently be elections.  Again, given the key demand of the Syrian opposition was the institution of democracy, this sounds perfectly reasonable, but the catch is that, again, Assad would have the right to run in these elections.  The idea that Russia and, even more so, Iran would invest so much in the regime only to see it melt away through genuine democracy is preposterous. 

These diktats and the ‘peace process’ are not born of some kind of organic stalemate in a normal civil war but are rather diplomatic attempts by external forces that prop up an entity which controls less than 25% of Syrian territory to further neutralise the Syrian rebellion.  The Assad regime simply wouldn’t exist if not for Russia and, to a much greater degree, Iran. 

The key to Assad’s survival was Iran’s direct intervention using its own Revolutionary Guard and Basij forces on the frontlines against the rebels in Syria (something that has increased every year), as well as it re-organising Assad’s own forces on a sectarian and communitarian basis in the form of the ‘National Defence Forces’. 

Along with this, Iran mobilised various Shia jihadist proxy forces and mercenaries, most notably Hezbollah and militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Without this intervention, Assad would have fallen years ago, something that Iranian regime officials have boasted about.

But Iran knew that all of this was more about prolonging rather than definitively saving the Assad regime.  In 2015, rebel forces, after going through a period of reorganisation, were able to liberate Idlib from the regime and Hezbollah.  They were able to use Idlib as a base from which to penetrate through Hama and Homs towards Latakia and Tartus, areas that if liberated by the rebels would’ve severely weakened Assad. 

Following these rebel advances, and the ability of the rebels to hold out in precarious areas such as Aleppo, the Iranian regime directly appealed for Russia to intervene.  Iran allegedly put it plainly to Putin – if you don’t intervene now, Assad will fall. 

And thus began the Russian intervention against not the Islamic State group, as Putin advertised, but primarily the rebels.  However, despite Russia’s assault on Free Syria, all the contradictions that make an Assad regime military victory a near impossibility, such as lack of manpower and the reliance on foreign fighters that have no affinity with Syrian localities, remained in place.  All Russia could do through sheer force alone is guarantee that the rebels wouldn’t be able to achieve victory any time in the near future, while brutally punishing all who dwell in areas of liberated Syria.

From the Iranian and Russian side of things, this is the context in which they’ve issued these diktats.  If Assad can’t win militarily, the regime can be preserved through a mixture of brutal violence and the resulting gun-to-the-head diplomacy that emerges from these changing power relations. 

In normal circumstances, the diktats would be perfectly in line with the farcical and meaningless nature of the peace process and would be readily dismissed, but this is perhaps no longer the case.  Now the US seems to be not just supporting these diktats, but actively pressuring the Syrian opposition and their few remaining state supporters into acceding to them. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the US has never supported the rebels in a manner that would match the Iran and Russia’s backing for the regime, but, diplomatically speaking, they did at least always hold to the Syrian revolutionaries’ demand that Assad must go, but this is simply no longer the case.  Over the past year the US has dropped this demand and seem to be supportive of the Iranian and Russian plans for bringing an end to the rebellion. 

While Kerry has denied that he tried to get the opposition to drop their precondition of Russia and the regime halting their bombardment of rebel-held civilian areas, the warning signs of a US turn have been there for a while.  In 2014, accompanying their intervention against the lesser evil of IS, there was their failed efforts to shift the focus of the rebels solely onto fighting IS, which included attempts to get fighters to officially pledge that they’d only fight the jihadists. 

The rise of IS combined with the neutralising effect of Russia’s intervention and the rapprochement between Iran and the US are all decisive factors in the current position of the US.  With Assad already saying that he isn’t willing to give up anything in these negotiations, it seems that every concession is expected to come from the rebels, based along these regime-saving diktats.

The idea that a just ‘peace’ could emerge out of these talks is something that is most brutally undermined by the fact that as Russia, Iran and the regime all endorse these negotiations, they continue in their attempts to exterminate the Syrian opposition and extinguish the very idea of Free Syria.

Not only has nothing changed that would make them acquiesce to the idea of bringing an end to their reign of terror, but the external factors that make such terror acceptable have clearly been boosted; hence this insidious new posture from the US.  The regime has absolutely no incentive to acquire peace other than on its own terms; indeed, it has been rewarded and appeased due to its unprecedented violence, while the rebels have absolutely no reason to believe that the regime won’t continue this policy of exterminationism. 

Whatever emerges from these manoeuvrings, it is unlikely to be peace. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.