Geneva II: A marathon, not a sprint

(Progress) After eight months of planning and nearly three years of war, the ‘Geneva II’ peace conference finally got started last week. Bringing representatives of the regime and the broad opposition together in the same city and subsequently in the same room has been a tortuous process while the conflict continues to drain the country to the tune of an estimated $109m a day. The start of the peace process was very much the equivalent of a ‘shotgun wedding’ – with all sides begrudgingly attending at the request of their international and regional allies. The key lesson to take away so far is that we have to be prepared for, and the British government should be ready to support, a long road to peace rather than an immediate grand bargain.

The actual launch of the conference was political pantomime at its best with a heady mix of unpredictability, high emotion and a media horde standing by to pick up on every moment. Things didn’t start well for the Syrian opposition delegation when its plane was grounded in Athens over a dispute over sanctions and refuelling. The set-piece launch of the event would prove more embarrassing for the United Nations secretary general. After Ban Ki Moon instructed the regime representative, Walid Muallem, to speak for ten minutes, he then proceeded to speak for thirty and just before wrapping up told Mr Ban ominously that ‘Syria always keeps its promises’.

Both the opposition and the regime launched their opening salvos as attempts to capture the moral high ground over the conflict. Each tried to present the other as the instigator of the catalogue of horror that Syria has faced. The opposition shared insights as the background to emerging events with western journalists whilst the regime’s state and affiliated media packed the press conferences infuriating the beleaguered mediator Brahimi with questions about terrorism.


The gap between the two parties understanding of their presence in Switzerland is remarkable. The opposition see Geneva 2 as a means of implementing the agreement found in Geneva 1 – with particular regard to implementing a transitional arrangement towards a transfer of full executive power away from Assad. The regime sees the conference as a counter-terrorism one and has been focusing their energies on statistics of numbers of foreign fighters in the country and what they claim is the insidious role played by Saudi Arabia to date.


The space in between these two interpretations of the conference is where progress could actually be made. The French have been discussing humanitarian corridors, Brahimi has pointed to new agreement to allow humanitarian aid into Homs, and to the concept of ‘humanitarian ceasefires’. Another area for potential agreement, something regularly used in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, is in prisoner release or swap deals. Brahimi referred to ‘thousands’ as missing, suspected jailed, so the regime has plenty of credit to spend in this regard.


As reports emerge of the details of the first face-to-face meeting between the protagonists, who wouldn’t speak directly to each other, you can see how Brahimi is carefully choreographing this peace dance. He is more than aware that both sides’ priorities are to ensure that if the conference does fail, the blame can’t be clearly laid at their feet. That managing failure is at the top of the two sides’ agendas, rather than effective peacemaking, explains the low expectations that surround the talks. However, if a process can be established, and trust, and perhaps even respect, can be forged between the negotiating teams, that in the medium-term could actually start to deliver effective hope for a more peaceful Syria.

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