Lines of the Game: Geneva II to End the Syrian Opposition?

By: Sami Kleib – Published Wednesday, January 22, 2014 – AL AKHBAR- Beirut – Geneva II is a surreal conference, not much different than the surrealism of the top artists who once lived in the magnificent city of Montreux, Switzerland. The official Syrian delegation heads to the conference to assert the regime’s legitimacy in the fight against terror, only to discover that Saudi and international traps have been laid for it and its ally Iran. The opposition delegation heads to Montreux seeking to delegitimize the regime, only to find out that an international plot has been hatched to end its role and lay the foundations of a more representative opposition framework for future negotiations.

Ultimately, the photo-op will be the most important outcome, with a picture of the regime and the opposition sitting around the same table.

Does Geneva II pave the way for the elimination of the opposition coalition? This is a distinct possibility.

Tremendous US pressure was brought to bear to persuade the coalition to attend. As a result, the coalition splintered, and those within the opposition grouping who agreed to attend were an unlikely alliance of pro-Saudi elements, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Michel Kilo’s faction. Some have jokingly called Kilo, the former communist, “our sheikh,” since he went to Riyadh and failed to object to the implementation of Sharia and attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. Opposition sources say that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi spy chief, met with Kilo twice, the first time for eight hours after he dispatched his private jet to bring him from Istanbul to Jeddah, and the second for four hours.

US Ambassador Robert Ford explicitly told the opposition: Agree on whomever you want however you want, but you must attend. Indeed, Washington hopes to achieve something before the end of Barack Obama’s second term, but also before Ford’s mission ends.

But there had to be a price, and the price soon came on a golden platter. The UN came out with the “present” when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew his invitation to Iran to attend Geneva II. This happened under pressure from Saudi and France, according to what is being said in Geneva. This belief is reinforced by reports that Russia and Washington had both agreed to invite Iran.

Iran’s name was even put on the conference table. Suddenly, the invitation was rescinded. It was a big slap in the face to the international organizations. But that’s OK; slaps will not be in short supply in Montreux and Geneva.

The second surprise came from Greece. It was soon revealed that Greece’s detention of the Syrian delegation’s plane was the result of European pressures on Athens. Between the surprises of Iran and Greece, a report was leaked on what has been described as systematic crimes by the regime against detainees. All this is meant to weaken the position of the regime and embarrass it ahead of the international conference.

Some said that withdrawing the invitation relieves Iran. Iran would be free in not accepting any of the conference’s outcomes. In effect, Iran paved the way for this with official statements on January 21. Ban Ki-moon and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi tried to persuade Tehran to consent to the principles of the Geneva I communique before attending Geneva II. Tehran dug in its heels. So did Russia, and Bashar al-Assad before them both. There can be no discussions whatsoever about the powers of the president or about transferring these powers to a transitional government. This is a red line for Damascus, and will remain a red line, even if it causes Geneva II to implode.

They want to show the opposition as fragmented to make it easier to support the regime against terror in the next phase. Everything else is rhetoric.

Does Geneva II pave the way for the elimination of the opposition coalition? This is a distinct possibility. Russian officials have candidly told opposition figures from outside the coalition: Don’t bank too much on the first episode of Geneva; there is more to come. Some suspect that Moscow and Washington have agreed to let the first stage pass in any way possible, with Russian pledges to expand the opposition framework in the coming phase.

There is another view holding that the hard core of the Friends of Syria group, which comprises 11 countries, has decided that the opposition’s delegation to Geneva II should be malleable so as to forestall any dissent. One figure in the opposition from outside the coalition went as far as saying, “We no longer trust anything. It seems that the Americans and the Russians have decided to refloat the regime. They want to show the opposition as fragmented to make it easier to support the regime against terror in the next phase. Everything else is rhetoric.”

The residents of Montreux are oblivious to what is happening in their city. Sitting in their homes, they see the delegations coming to disturb the calm in the city that lies between the mountains, opposite a marvelous lake.

Between Montreux and Geneva, there are tunnels that go beneath the mighty Alps. Whenever a visitor exits a tunnel, he will see the fir, cypress, and pine trees standing tall under what is left of the last snowstorm. And whenever a visitor leaves a tunnel, he will glimpse the sunlight, shyly peering from behind the clouds. By contrast, the participants in Geneva II don’t know where the negotiations’ tunnel will lead.

Are regional and international conditions ripe for a settlement? Or will there be more blood, fire, bombings, and destruction at the end of the tunnel, before a deal can be reached? From the counterattack against Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen, it appears that the battle is still very much raging.

The conference participants envy the people of Montreux for the splendor of the place. Here, the people have only seen the scenes of carnage on television, or not at all. The music and art festivals are much more appealing to them than the delegations that came to negotiate, without being convinced about the worth of these negotiations to begin with.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.