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The Geneva Peace Talks on Syria

Security Before Politics

by NILE BOWIE

The first face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Montreux, Switzerland began with scathing exchanges between the two delegations. Engineering a solution to the three-year conflict in Syria will be an uphill battle, but diplomats and international delegations in attendance will have a greater chance at deescalating fighting on the ground if political biases are put aside.

Syrian authorities have offered to put in place mechanisms for a ceasefire in Aleppo, in addition to prisoner exchanges and opportunities to make available humanitarian assistance to civilian areas under siege. Damascus has also said that a proposed ceasefire in Aleppo can serve as a blueprint for further ceasefire arrangements around the country. If a settlement can be reached on these matters, it is a step closer to the cessation of violence in Syria.

On the other hand, the Geneva talks are being used as a platform for the United States and its allies to move closer to their ostensible policy aim of removing President Bashar al-Assad from office. US Secretary of State John Kerry argues that the original Geneva communiqué established in June 2012 obligates President Assad to move aside, though the text itself makes no such specification, and calls for a transitional government that can include members of the present government and the opposition.

Major instability has threatened countries in the Middle East and North Africa due to political trajectories being dictated by outside forces, yielding volatile security conditions that threaten regional stability at high human cost. Participants at the Geneva dialogue have an opportunity to curb hostilities and establish a framework for meeting the humanitarian needs of the civilian population. This opportunity should not be squandered by adversarial politics and attempts by interested parties to shape a new political order for their own interests.

A major obstacle presents itself in that the SNC has little command over the wide array of various rebel militias fighting on the ground in Syria. Even if a favorable agreement is reached between the SNC and government representatives, the most powerful forces on the ground – Islamist militias who propagate radical Wahhabi thinking – will not honor any ceasefire.

Contrary to what popular wisdom espouses in the English-speaking world, the majority of Syrians living inside the country of all different faiths and persuasions see such radical Islamist organizations like Jabhat al-Nursa and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a far greater threat than Bashar al-Assad.

In his opening address at the Geneva talks, John Kerry insinuated that Syria faced disintegration if Assad remained in power. The recent historical examples of Iraq and Libya suggest that states are no less prone to disintegration and instability in the power vacuum created by forceful changes of power assisted from abroad; human rights violations have also continued unabated and have grown worse in many circumstances.

The Syrian province of Raqqa is a microcosm showcasing the kind of social order that would most permeate in Syria if the regime was forcibly changed, or in the absence of state authority. Raqqa is completely under the control of ISIL (which actively opposes the fledging and divided SNC), and has imposed puritanical interpretations of sharia law on residents. Syria was among the most secular and socially liberal countries in the region, and now foreign-backed jihadists groups dictate Taliban-style social norms.

The international community may not condone groups such as ISIL, but the reality is that the ‘moderate’ groups represent a few drops in an ocean of militias dominated by radical Islamists who will dominate any post-regime change landscape. For these reasons, opposition groups that are interested in ending the Syrian conflict should put aside their political differences and align themselves with the legitimate Syrian government and armed forces to flush out radical elements.

It is no secret that most of the countries attending the Geneva talks want to see an end to Bashar al-Assad and his government. The timing of recent reports published in the run-up the Geneva talks is no coincidence. The Syrian government is being accused by anonymous sources of covertly supporting al-Qaeda to spoil the image of the rebellion. Another report financed by the government of Qatar purports to show images depicting tortured and emancipated bodies allegedly photographed in government prisons by a defector from the Syrian military.

These reports should not be denied outright, but objectivity is needed. Considering the timing of these ‘smoking gun’ publications, they appear to strengthen public discourse toward assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva conference that might leave him in place.

The principle financier behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to aid Islamist rebels fighting Assad’s government.

These claims and photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified and the Syrian government’s side of the story must be fully taken into account before media outlets and foreign ministries play judge, jury, and executioner. One should remember the August 21st chemical weapons attack that the highest political representatives of the United States accused the Syrian government of being responsible for.

UN investigator Carla Del Ponte’s findings suggested that rebel militias had the capacity to produce sarin nerve gas, while a recent study by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that the Syrian government could not possibly have been responsible for the chemical attack based on the intelligence made available by US representatives. With Syria, there is truly a danger that unfounded claims can lead to destructive policy choices that will deepen the crisis and civilian suffering.

The positions of the US State Department or the diplomatic representatives of any other country should not shape Syria’s political future; Syria’s own population must choose their leadership at the ballot box in free and fair elections. Future polls in Syria cannot be free and fair if the candidate most likely to win a mandate – Bashar al-Assad – is excluded from campaigning. International delegations attending the Geneva talks must refrain from attempting to influence the internal affairs of the Syrian state.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com