In mid-January 2014 winter will be at home in Europe. It will stretch across the Mediterranean, into some regions of the Middle East, including Lebanon. Over a million of the estimated 2.2 million refugees who fled the Syrian civil war live there, adding up to 25% to the population of Lebanon – 4.2 million people.
According to the UNHCR, at least 80,000 of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon will spend winter in tents, with low temperatures, rain or even snow adding more pain and hardships to their already dire living conditions. Humanitarian bodies fear that the feeblest, mostly children in poor health condition, will be at great risk.
On 22 January 2014, in the Swiss city of Montreux, the representatives of the world’s powers will try to defrost diplomacy and make it work, to silence the voice of weapons in Syria, stop the killing of innocent civilians and put an end to an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, the most severe in modern history. So far, the Syrian civil war has raged for two years and eight months and has killed more than 126,000 people.
The Geneva II conference as it is known, should be the most serious international effort yet to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. It aims at bringing together for the first time, at the negotiation table, one delegation representing the Syrian regime and one representing the Syrian opposition. The parts should discuss how to end the war, implement a “transitional government” and start a process toward a New Syrian republic.
We say “should” because even if the date and place of the conference are set there is no guarantee, yet, that Geneva II will actually be convened. Making it happen is the first Herculean effort that stands in front of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria. Major stumbling blocks remain: for a start the acceptance, by all the belligerents, of the very principle of a political solution to the civil war.
Then, there is the issue of participation, of the legitimacy of those who are expected to negotiate. Each stakeholder has its own take on who should be invited to participate. In December 2013, behind-the-scene discussions were ongoing.
At the Geneva II conference, Damascus and Moscow would like to see at the negotiation table a strong delegation of the Assad government and the representatives of the “moderate opposition forces”- that is, those rebels who have already cooperated with the regime in the past, or high officials who have left Syria.
But Western countries want to see the independent opposition forces in Montreux and Geneva, although this objective is hampered by the deep divisions among those forces.
While the Syrian National Coalition, a group supported by the West, has announced conditional readiness to join the talks despite objections from fighters and activists inside, at the end of November the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army – the other Moderate western-backed rebel force – said his group would shun the peace conference in Switzerland and would pursue its fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad regardless.
General Salim Idriss’s stance highlights how hard it will be for international mediators to get Syria’s warring and divided parties to the negotiating table. The Free Syrian Army has been losing ground to Islamist fighters, as the insurgency has turned into a more complex conflict with schisms between the various rebel groups.
Another major hurdle is the agenda of the Geneva II conference. Attitudes of Syrian groups and of the US and Russia towards the role or the absence of president Bashar al-Assad in a transition period differ and are expected to constitute a major issue of the conference.
On 3 November 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that a handover of power by Syrian President Assad “can give the people of Syria the opportunity to choose their future”. In reaction, the Syrian government said such statements could cause the peace talks to fail, because they “are a flagrant violation of Syrian affairs and an aggression against the Syrian people’s right to decide their future.” The Assad regime has refused to accept any preconditions on the Geneva II talks.
But the evolution of the situation on the ground and the fear of seeing Syria becoming the playing field of Islamist fundamentalist forces, may push the West towards accepting Assad, the devil they know. On 17 December, Western nations indicated to the Syrian opposition that Geneva II peace talks may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration.
The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London, was prompted by the rise of al-Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey, belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army. “Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the Coalition, quoted by Reuters.
So while reiterating their mantra that Assad has no future in Syria, in December US diplomats warned the Syrian opposition that unless rebel brigades overcome the split between moderate forces and Islamists who oppose the Geneva talks, Assad looked set to stay.
The recent statements of the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview to RIA news agency, point towards a newly-found US-Russian common position on this issue. “The idea is occurring to some Western colleagues that … Assad remaining in office is less of a threat for Syria than a takeover of the country by terrorists”, Lavrov said on 20 December 2013.
Add to these elements the realistic appreciation provided the same day by the US Ambassador Robert Ford in Istanbul. Meeting senior Syrian opposition forces, Ford said that the Geneva process was likely to go on for months. Then, pay attention to the pessimism expressed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Speaking at the World Policy Conference, on 15 December, he said: “My fellow European ministers and I are working to make [the talks] a success, but there is room for lots of doubts. And, unfortunately, if this meeting’s not a success, it means this martyred country is going to keep suffering – and neighbouring countries too.”
No need to be a seasoned diplomat to understand that the prospects of a swift political resolution of the Syrian civil war are rather slim. And that, despite the fact that there seems to be no military solution to this conflict, the voice of weapons will not be silenced too soon.
What next, then? Will we be left powerless to contemplate from afar the atrocious scenes of human beings killing other human beings? If no ceasefire is agreed upon, on the Syrian government’s side, Assad’s militias will continue to kill, torture, rape.
On the insurgency’s side, fundamentalists outnumbering moderate opposition forces will carry on imposing their brand of Islamist terror with unspeakable savagery in the villages and neighbourhoods they control. With the chemical arsenal progressively coming under control – after the terrible chemical attacks at the end of August 2013 – the so-called “conventional weapons”, that are not forbidden by the international community will continue to serve the war lords.
Nearly 98% out of the 126,000 victims of the Syrian war have been killed with conventional weapons. On 15 December 2013 in Aleppo, a focal point for fighting between the regime and rebel forces, the Syrian air force killed 76 people, among them 28 children, by unleashing barrels packed with explosives.
The unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe will carry on, with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and more than 2.2 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The United Nations estimates that if the war continues, the number of Syrian refugees in the Middle East is likely to double, reaching 4.1 million by the end of 2014.
Whatever conventional weapons cannot achieve will be achieved by starvation. Over one million Syrians are trapped in areas where food and aid deliveries are stalled. The “starvation until submission” campaign, as one Syrian security officer quoted by Reuters called it, affects, according to the United Nations, over 500,000 people in rural Damascus and around 350,000 people trapped in the Homs province, in central Syria.
After having waited for too long and left alone the first, peaceful insurgents, who demonstrated peacefully against Assad’s dictatorship in April 2011, the international community faces a tough reality.
So while hoping against hope, ahead of the Geneva II international conference we are left to understand that it could achieve nothing more than admitting the victory of the “Butcher of Damascus”.