Washington and Damascus will take very different ideas of a peace process for Syria to the proposed 'Geneva 2' talks in late January, and that difference in ideas is what makes peace so hard.
By Tim Anderson
The US-led group (including France, the UK, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) relies on two key themes: delegitimising and sidelining the Syrian Government, then invoking the supposed prerogative of 'the international community' to decide on a transitional regime, particularly if the Syrian state can be made to appear dysfunctional.
The Syrian Government, for its part, stresses the outside backing of armed extremist groups and proposes the control of cross border terrorism (per the many UNSC resolutions since 2001) as the key theme. Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad made it clear that his government was open to further political change, including constitutional reform, but each change would have to be put to the Syrian people by referendum.
The Syrian Government would neither hand over power nor allow a power vacuum.
Washington's message is better heard in western countries, where the colonial legacy supports a more favourable view of 'benign intervention'. On the other hand the message from Damascus, with its emphasis on sovereignty and independence, is received more favourably in most of the rest of the world, with a colonised past. Those divisions will be reflected at Geneva.
Washington has been trying to assemble a group of allied nations (while trying to exclude Iran), in support of its claim to speak for 'the international community'. Despite the anomaly of protagonists in the violence presenting themselves as mediators and protectors, this approach might have been persuasive if the Syrian Government lacked political will, had little popular support and few allies.
However the Assad Government has maintained its independent stance and the large Syrian Arab Army (SAA), which has not fractured, seems to hold substantial popular support. Despite almost three years of violence, President Assad presides over a functioning state and nation, despite the UN-estimated death count of 130,000, and despite the 'rebels' regularly targeting schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
Critically, Washington lacks a credible Syrian partner. The original armed network, called the 'Free Syrian Army' and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, has been falling apart or collapsing into the Saudi backed
Islamist groups, Jabhat al Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic Front. None of these groups accepts the exile Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as its representative, nor do they want peace talks. They are fanatics who want an Islamic state.
The conflict in Syria has distinct features. A traditional element is the role presented by the big powers that, while they back armed 'opposition' groups, they can also play the role of mediators and protectors.
A second feature, more novel, has been the readiness of the sectarian groups to commit civilian massacres, film them, and then often blame them on the Syrian Government. The aim has been to incite more direct
NATO intervention. This has failed, in part because of the Russian diplomatic and military role and presence in the region.
However this 'massacre propaganda war' shows a new synergy between the western 'responsibility to protect' doctrine and the savagery of the sectarian Islamists.
On the one hand the US has had to distance itself from, ignore or re-spin the atrocities of the 'rebels': beheadings, executions, civilian massacres, kidnappings, car-bombings, attacks on hospitals and so on.
This is especially the case since 2012, when the large influx of foreign fighters across the Turkish border became apparent, and led to the 'good cop, bad cop' routine now adopted by Washington and Riyadh.
Since the 'secular' fighter myth fell, the US is said to only back 'moderates'; yet its close ally the Saud family is said to be 'going it alone' through support of the extremists.
Since the Obama administration abandoned a direct role in the conflict, after being confronted by Moscow last September, the Saudis have assumed the key role of funding and arming (with US, British, French and Israeli weapons) almost all the armed groups. The strategy has also changed. Even though there are tens of thousands of 'opposition' fighters in Syria, they have made no strategic gains in many months. They can kill
and be killed, but not advance. Yet they can bleed the country, and they can damage schools, hospitals, infrastructure and the economy.
As for the civilian massacres blamed on the government, it is remarkable that none of those accusations clearly or unequivocally 'found its mark'. The Houla massacre of May 2012, which was used as the basis for
international sanctions, has been discredited as a false flag operation, committed by Farouk brigade leaders, as they left Homs and just before a UNSC meeting (see Anderson and Lévesque and Chossudovsky, below). As independent witnesses have revealed, it was pro-government villagers who were slaughtered.
Then there was the assassination of the senior Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti, in March 2013. Because he backed a pluralist system, the sectarian groups ('takfiris' they are called) called for his death, killed him (along with 50 others in a Damascus mosque), celebrated his death - then blamed the government. Some elements of the western media, including the BBC, repeated this outrageous lie. Last year five young members of Jabhat al Nusra confessed to the murder, and in December their confession was shown on Syrian television.
The August 2013 chemical weapons incident at East Ghouta, almost the basis for US missile attacks, was similarly discredited. Jordan-based reporter Yahya Ababneh exposed Saudi involvement while a Christian team led by Mother Agnes Mariam pointed to fabricated video evidence of the dead children. Later, US writers (Hersh, Giraldi and Parry) would expose the fabrication of intelligence and reject the 'conjectural' theories of telemetry, made up to suit Washington's accusations. More recently a group of Turkish lawyers and writers blamed the East Ghouta incident on Saudi-backed 'Liwa al Islam' brigade.
None of this has stopped much of the western corporate media, in its own manner of 'circular reporting', repeating the civilian massacre accusations and so continuing the US-led process of delegitimising the Syrian 'regime'.
The language of the western media deserves some attention. Even when the various armed groups have shown film of their butchering of men, women and children, they are still referred to as 'rebels' or the 'armed
opposition'. The Syrian Government's use of the term 'terrorists' is almost always re-phrased to include inverted commas.
At Geneva an unpicking of this loose terminology will be essential, as no serious diplomacy can regard (for example) the Libyan, Chechen, Saudi, Pakistani and other fighters as either 'rebels' or 'opposition'. By December 2013 Syrian Government officials had 83 nationalities listed as participating in attacks inside Syria.
Another important question involves the participation of the Syrian civil opposition (those not engaged in the armed conflict) in the Geneva talks. Many in this group have had representatives in the Syrian parliament since the elections of 2005 and 2012. Some are now government ministers.
One of the non-Baath Party ministers in the current Government, Mr Ali Haidar, Minister for Reconciliation, told me last month that his party (the Syrian Social National Party) had been 'part of the political reform movement for over a decade; while the armed groups have been there for just three years.' He agreed with the suggestion that core themes of this movement included addressing corruption and its link to the virtual monopoly on power by the Ba'ath Party.
Haidar said in an earlier interview: 'the crisis goes back many years ... [with] a real popular peaceful mobilization on the ground which began with rightful demands ... we were the ones who challenged the elections before the higher constitutional court.' But there was foreign intervention and the SSNP opposed the call for 'a break with the regime', because 'a break with the regime means a break with its popular base'.
His Reconciliation Ministry, custom built in 2012 and run mainly by volunteers, has been negotiating the release of kidnap victims and has persuaded several thousand Syrians (if they had not committed murder) to give up their arms in exchange for amnesty and reincorporation into normal life.
Similarly, other Syrians like Christian MP Maria Saadeh have a genuine mandate from a section of Syrian society. She has been calling for a peaceful and political resolution to the crisis. 'We need to ask all countries to stop violence and war. We call on the United States not to promote military action ... [we want peace and a Syria] with all Syrians of different ethnicities, cultures and religions.'
As 2014 began, 11 Syrian political parties (the Al-Baath Arab Socialist Party, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Unified Syrian Communist Party, Arab Socialist Union Party, National Pact Party, Unionist Socialist Democratic Party, Arab Democratic Union Party, Democratic Vanguard Party, Popular Will Party, Solidarity Party, and National Democratic Party), while not rejecting the Geneva process, joined in calling for a genuine Syrian solution to the crisis.
At their meeting in Lattakia this combined group discussed the crisis along with ideas for combating corruption, supporting a national media, unemployment, and the return of displaced Syrians.
The Syrian Government has designated nine senior ministers and advisers as participants in the Geneva talks. But it is not yet clear who from the civil opposition might go. It is ironic, to say the least, that western countries think of the exile Syrian National Coalition or the head-chopping jihadists, and not people like Ali Haidar and Maria Saadeh, when they speak of the Syrian 'opposition'.
The US-backed exile Syrian National Coalition (SNC), through its Saudi-backed leader Ahmad Jarba, persists in its demands to be included in a new regime which would exclude 'Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands'. Similarly, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius maintains the aggressive French line that 'we must bring that [Assad] regime to an end'.
Yet the 'Free Syrian Army, with which the SNC had a tenuous relationship, through the Muslim Brotherhood network, has all but collapsed and the Saudi-backed jihadist groups which dominate the fighting reject the entire Geneva process. They want an Islamic state.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was confident 'the Syrian opposition' would come to Geneva, but just who that opposition is remains to be seen. The US seems intent on weakening the Syrian state. Kerry opened some (ultimately unsuccessful) talks with the new grouping, the Islamic Front, and the Washington is reported to be looking for opportunities to resume military aid to those it considers 'moderate rebels'.
Meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been promoting 'confidence building measures', such as a possible prisoner exchange, localised ceasefires and possible humanitarian assistance. However the
jihadist habit of kidnaping journalists, aid workers and 'unbelievers' makes such gestures difficult.
The US position draws on the doctrine of a 'responsibility to protect'. Ongoing crisis and violence fuels this claim. It reminds me of the words of Cuban patriot José Martí, who wrote to a friend in 1889: 'About our country ... there is another plan, more sinister than we have known, to force the island into war so as to have a pretext to intervene and, in the guise of a mediator or guarantor, seize it.'
The Syrian Government position, on the other hand, backed by Russia, relies on international law. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikdad told our Australian delegation that: 'Any call for President Assad to step down means they want the destruction of Syria ... we tell them this is not a decision for you. The Syrian people will see who will lead them ... The most important thing is that there should be no void in Syria. We can start working on a new constitution, this is open, but until we enact the new constitution we cannot give up the existing constitution because this would be very dangerous. The entire process in Geneva will be put to the Syrian people for a referendum ... this is what Geneva stipulates, the opinion of the Syrian people must be taken at all stages of the process.'
What might this mean in practice? A senior official in the Syrian Government suggested to me that, as the only organised part of Syrian society associated with the armed groups is the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria might agree to change the constitution to allow it to stand a candidate in the presidential election, set for July this year. He thought they might get 15% of the vote 'at most'.
However that change would mean allowing political groups based on religion or ethnicity, currently banned. I got a very negative reaction to this suggestion from several others. Two soldiers told me President Assad would lose a lot of support if he agreed to that: 'that is what we are fighting against', they said. SSNP leader Ali Haidar agreed: 'that would be taking us back to the past'.
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Faysal Mikdad, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister, discussion with an
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writer, 21 December 2013, Damascus
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Several years ago, a prominent Indonesian businessman who now resides in Canada, insisted on meeting me in a back room of one of Jakarta's posh restaurants. An avid reader of mine, he 'had something urgent to tell me', after finding out that our paths were going to be crossing in this destroyed and hopelessly polluted Indonesian capital.