An air of mistrust and recrimination dominate the talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Switzerland. And while both refuse to talk directly to each other, and threaten withdrawal at the slightest pretext, both sides realise that this dialogue is the only means acceptable to the international community to move forward.
By Mina al-Oraibi, Assistant Editor-in-Chief, Asharq Alawsat
Geneva , Switzerland - After an almost three-year uprising that has become one of the Middle East's bloodiest conflicts, Syria's government and opposition sat down together in Geneva for the first time this week to begin talks on how to end the conflict. The two sides have yet to speak to one another directly, as they negotiate through a mediator, the United Nations and Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi.
Nevertheless, the fact that they are sitting in one room is considered by the United Nations and diplomats to be a significant development. And yet, this development has yet to be translated into anything meaningful on the ground in Syria. Rather, Syrian activists say that the government has escalated its military attacks on areas like Aleppo and Homs. Arbitrary detention campaigns continue and refugee flows across into neighbouring countries have not ceased.
As the lead negotiator for the opposition, Hadi Al-Bahra, told me as he headed to a meeting with the government delegation and Brahimi, 'the regime is using its military might as a negotiation tactic'. On the other hand, Syrian opposition fighters and various rebel groups continue their fight against Syrian government forces, in what the government calls ‘terrorist attacks’.
No ceasefire was agreed upon before the decision was made to start negotiations. Thus the harsh realities of death were the backdrop to the talks launched with an international ministerial meeting in the Swiss resort town of Montreux, kicking off the process that continues now in Geneva. Thirty-nine countries and three international organisations came together in a day-long meeting under the auspices of the United Nations on 22 January to support the negotiations.
As agreed by those who convened in Montreux and as stated in the United Nations’ invitation to those attending, the basis of the talks is a document known as the Geneva Communiqué that was agreed upon by a host of countries concerned with the Syria crisis, including the Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council in June 2012.
The five-page document is the only internationally endorsed agreement intended to secure a peaceful end of the war in Syria. The most significant element in the Geneva Communiqué is the laying out of a road map for the political future of Syria. The Geneva Communiqué calls for ‘the establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent’.
Even as the talks started in Geneva, and during the nineteen months of diplomatic manoeuvring to get both sides to the table, the issue of the transitional governing body has been the most problematic. It was expected to become the main stumbling block during the talks, and that is what has happened so far. While the opposition says it adheres to the Geneva Communiqué on the understanding that it leads to the end of the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad and his military-security complex, the Syrian government refused to sign up to it publicly.
Moreover, the Syrian government says it refuses to even discuss the issue of President Al-Assad’s political future. Seeing as the Communiqué clearly states that any transitional governing body ‘has to be formed on the basis of mutual consent’, both sides repeat this term more than any other. For the moment, it appears ‘mutual consent’ has become a veto-power; any term they reject on transitioning of power can be struck down with the simple statement of ‘lack of consent’.
This ‘lack of consent’ was apparent when I was speaking to both representatives of the government and opposition first in Montreux then in Geneva. Each side was keen to portray themselves as the ‘serious’ party in the talks and portraying their foes as ‘time-wasting’. Both the lack of trust and refusal to engage one another have made the opening of the Geneva talks lacking in substance. However, this is not a surprise to those following Syria closely, and as the initial round of negotiations comes to a close this week, the onus will be on the Syrian negotiators to come back to the second round in February with suggestions on moving forward.
While the complexities and problems with the Syrian crisis appear insurmountable, and while lives continue to be shattered daily and displacement is threatening the make-up of the entire region, all the parties involved say the talks will require months. Brahimi has refused to put a timeline for the talks, and in his daily press briefings since the start of the negotiations says ‘this will be a slow process’.
However, Western diplomats stress that both the Syrian government and opposition have been informed by their respective backers, Moscow and Washington, that Geneva is 'the only show in town'. Thus, they will be in the talks for the long run, where the main outcome expected from either side by their international backers is to remain engaged, even if indirectly. Moreover, both sides refuse to be the first one to 'walk away from the table', knowing that such a move would hand a diplomatic victory to their foe. And so it appears, for now at least, the only mutual consent between the two delegations is the refusal to walk away.
Mina Al-Oraibi is the Assistant Editor-in-Chief, Asharq Alawsat Newspaper. She was reporting from the opening days of the Geneva talks. She can be reached @aloraibi