Wang Yi, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, is hopeful: “A review of human history teaches that any conflict, however serious, can be resolved, and any hatred, however deep, can be removed. As long as there is sincerity and concrete action.”[i]
These words were part of Mr. Wang’s statement during the so-called ‘high-level segment’ of the Geneva II Conference on Syria. Alongside him in the huge conference room in Montreux were the foreign ministers and officials from some 40 countries and international organisations, as well as delegations from the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition – the opposition group with the highest international profile, but doubtful influence over the opposition fighters on the ground in Syria.
It is not clear which historic conflicts Mr. Wang had in mind. Perhaps he was talking about the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) or the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Both conflicts brought immeasurable human suffering leading to horrendously high death tolls (approximately 150,000 in Lebanon[ii]; more than 97;000 in Bosnia[iii]). And both conflicts were brought to an end through internationally brokered peace processes, resulting in the Taif Agreement[iv] and the Dayton Accords[v] respectively.
In any case, the Syrian war certainly is a ‘serious conflict’ and the deep hatred between the various waring factions is not least depicted in thousands of terrifying YouTube videos. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,[vi] more than 136,000 people have been killed since the first wave of protests against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. More than 2.4 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, over 6.5 million have been internally displaced. USAID estimates that more than 9.3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance as they are suffering through the cold winter.[vii]
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Syrian conflict will not be resolved on the battlefield. After almost three years of fighting no side looks poised for a decisive military victory.[viii] A political solution is the only way out of the brutal stalemate, and the mere fact that the Geneva II conference has taken place therefore has to be seen as a positive sign. Yet, after ten days of negotiations there is no credible solution to the conflict in sight.
With the next round of negotiations scheduled to begin on the 10th of February, the Geneva II conference appears to be turning into a more permanent Geneva-process. However, there is little reason for optimism that the talks will be producing any meaningful progress anytime soon. This is not least due to the fact that “sincerity and concrete action”, Mr. Wang’s conditions for resolving a conflict, have thus far been absent from Geneva.
The fact that the Geneva conference saw the first direct talks between delegations from the Syrian regime and the opposition has to be seen as a positive sign. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether the two sides are truly willing to engage in sincere and meaningful negotiations.
The regime delegation categorically refused to even discuss the future of president al-Assad. Instead they submitted a document calling for the return to Syrian sovereignty of the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967.[ix] Information minister Omran al-Zohbi cast further doubts over his delegation’s willingness for compromise. Outside the UN’s Geneva headquarters he told supporters that “neither in this round, nor in the next will they obtain any concessions from the Syrian delegation.”[x]
Meanwhile, doubts persist regarding the willingness of the opposition to participate in negotiations with the regime. The Syrian National Coalition was the only opposition group present in Geneva. The Islamic Front, currently the strongest non-extremist armed opposition group, on the other hand rejects the very concept of talks to resolve the conflict.[xi]
But even the Syrian National Coalition failed to convincingly demonstrate its willingness for compromise. This was not least illustrated by the group’s threat to withdraw from the talks entirely when UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon invited Iran to Geneva.[xii] Considering Iran’s heavy involvement in the war as the regime’s closest ally, and the fact that Saudi-Arabia and other overt supporters of the armed opposition were present, this uncompromising stance by the Coalition seems short-sighted. Even though Tehran refuses to endorse the Geneva I communique[xiii] from June 2012 as the basis for the political process, it is clear that an effective resolution of the conflict is only possible with participation of all parties involved – including Iran.
As for “concrete action,” the Geneva talks have produced next to nothing. The two sides agreed some limited ceasefires to allow access for humanitarian aid workers, particularly around the besieged city of Homs. But according to Valerie Amos, the UN’s Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, these measures have so far been ineffective.[xiv]
Once again, the only truly concrete action the Syrian people are seeing has little to do with peace. During the 10 days of talks in Geneva almost 1,900 people were killed, the following weekend brought an additional 591 deaths.[xv] In Aleppo the regime is bombarding rebel-held areas with crude barrel bombs, causing death and destruction, and hardly a day goes by without the appearance of another amateur video depicting unspeakable acts of brutality committed by government forces, radical islamists or the more ‘moderate’ rebels.[xvi]
However, “sincerity and concrete action” is also required from the international community. The permanent members of the UN Security Council invested considerable effort in organising the conference, yet they remain unwilling to exert real pressure on the belligerents on the ground to halt the violence. Saudi-Arabia, other Gulf nations, and Iran give verbal support for a political solution, but continue to supply their respective allies with funds and weapons, which contributes to the protraction of the conflict. At the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait on the 15th of January, the international community committed to a give a total of $2.3 billion to ease the humanitarian crisis.[xvii] However, giving money is not enough to end the conflict.
At the end of the first 10 days of negotiations in Geneva, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s Special Envoy to Syria tried his best to emphasise the positive: “Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build.”[xviii] However, unless the delegations from the regime and the opposition, and the international community are truly sincere in their willingness to find common ground and commit to concrete action, the Syrian war will not come to a peaceful solution. The solution of the conflict needs compromise and sacrifice, not a mere additional, diplomatic battlefront in the UN’s conference rooms in Geneva.
[i] Wang Yi, “Wang Yi:Seek Common Ground While Shelving Differences And Meet Each Other Half Way To Find a Political Settlement of the Syrian Issue,” Office of the Commissioner of the Ministery of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 23 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.fmcoprc.gov.hk/eng/xwdt/wsyw/t1122045.htm
[ii] “Lebanon Profile,” BBC News, last modified 31 December 2013, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14649284
[iii] “Bosnia War Dead Figure Announced,” BBC News, last modified 21 June 2007, accessed 4 February 2014, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6228152.stm
[iv] “Taef Agreement,” Le Monde Diplomatique, undated, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/cahier/proche-orient/region-liban-taef-en
[viii] Borzou Daragahi, “Assad Fails to Break Syrian Stalemate Despite Rebel Infighting,” Financial Times, 15 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cf51f198-7df6-11e3-b409-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2sNPOITSY
[ix] Anne Barnard, “Syria Talks Appear Deadlocked as Sides Disagree over Goals,” International New York Times, 27 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/world/middleeast/syria.html?_r=0
[x] Ian Black, “Nearly 1,900 Killed in Syria Since Geneva Talks Began,” The Guardian, 31 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/31/syria-death-toll-geneva-talks
[xi] “Major Syrian Rebel Group Rejects Geneva Peace Talks,” Al-Jazeera America, 19 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/19/major-syrian-rebelgrouprejectsgenevapeacetalks.html
[xii] Louis Charbonneau and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran Invite to Syria Talks Withdrawn After Boycott Threat,” Reuters, 20 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/20/us-syria-un-iran-idUSBREA0J01K20140120
[xiii] “Final communiqué of the Action Group for Syria – Geneva, Saturday 30 June 2012,” The United Nations Office at Geneva, 30 June 2012, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/%28httpNewsByYear_en%29/18F70DBC923963B1C1257A2D0060696B?OpenDocument
[xiv] Alexandra Olson, “UN Official Dismayed at Failure of Syria Aid Deal,” ABC News, 31 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/official-dismayed-failure-syria-aid-deal-22318905
[xvi] “Fighting Continues as Syria Talks Wind Up,” Al-Jazeera, last modified 2 February 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2014/02/fighting-continues-as-syria-talks-wind-up-20142223917200352.html
[xvii] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, Kuwait 15 January 2014,” accessed 4 February 2014, https://docs.unocha.org/sites/dms/Documents/K2_PLEDGE_26JAN2014_report+graphic.pdf
[xviii] “Syria Crisis: Geneva Peace Talks End in Recriminations,” BBC News, last modified 31 January 2014, accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25983181