Today, in Montreux, Switzerland, a preliminary international conference started, dedicated to ending the bloodshed in Syria, which over three years claimed over 130 thousand of lives and forced two million Syrians flee their homes. For the 23-million country this is a catastrophe. And on January 24 it is expected to begin in Geneva direct talks between delegations of the opposition forces - the Syrian government and the external and internal opposition.
Last year it was a time when it was considered axiomatic that the Assad regime was about to fall, and those who support it, would come off worst. Now the Syrian President’s opponents have to sit down for the talks with his representatives, because there is no question of his immediate resignation. The president is likely to retain power, at least until the next elections, coming this year. And if in negotiating it can be agreed upon a smooth transition to a new model, Moscow’s goal will be reached - the preservation of a united, secular Syria, where Russia will retain influence.
However, according to Professor George Mirsky, it is doubtful whether the bloodshed in Syria can be stopped in the foreseeable future. The fact is that, of course, the most ardent fighters among the organizations close to the al-Qaeda will not be presented at the conference. But it is they, for the most part, that destabilize the situation in Syria. It is clear that for them the conference decisions are not obligatory. Moreover, delegations of external and internal opposition presented at the conference are weakened by key participants’ withdrawal. Thus, the leading formation SNC (Syrian National Council) has withdrawn from the external opposition of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), and the leading formation of the internal opposition - NCC (National Coordinating Committee) is boycotting the Geneva II conference. Syrian Kurds playing a prominent role in the confrontation with foreign mercenaries are not represented at the conference either.
SNC member al-Hamza believes that NCSROF is under the influence of foreign countries, in the first place the United States and Saudi Arabia, and is doing what foreign powers want but not the Syrian people. According to his version, most opponents of Assad are not concerned with the Geneva II, but with the preparation of the National Conference of Syrian. There a new authority of the opposition is to be elected. After taking of Damascus this authority supposedly should turn into a transitional government.
According to information of a member of the expert group of the Public Council under the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation Ivan Andriyevskiy, the Persian Gulf monarchies, feuding with Iran on economic and religious reasons, had hoped to exert pressure on Tehran by means of NCSROF. However, in autumn 2013 Washington went to reconciliation with Iran. Since then NCSROF sitting in Istanbul, ceased to interest the Saudis and Qatar.
Great influence in the Middle East region is brought by Iran, and it was supposed that it will participate in the Geneva II. “To the Geneva II conference about 40 states have been invited, and if Iran is not in this list, the conference will remind profanation,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “And if anyone calls in question the need for inviting influential players, he is not interested in a fair settlement of the Syrian crisis through negotiations.” But United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the last moment, withdrew the invitation, having mentioned that “Iran does not share the principles of settlement laid down in the Geneva communique.” At a press conference in Moscow, on 21 January, Lavrov called this phrase “sufficiently cunning” and stressed that “it has not added any authority to the UN.” And then concluded: “This is a mistake but no catastrophe happened.”
Goals the participants are setting themselves are different. If for Assad the main thing is fighting against terrorists, then for the opposition supported by France, Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is establishing a transitional government, i.e. a struggle for power.
In the mean time, the Geneva II international conference on Syria does not provide for a discussion of the possibility of a regime change in Syria. “The principle of regime change is not provided for by the Russian-American initiative. This initiative calls for holding a conference to start a direct dialogue between the Syrian sides for the purpose of full implementation of the Geneva communique,” said Lavrov and confirmed Russia’s position identified as far back as 2012 by President Vladimir Putin. “First we need to agree on the future, to understand how to provide legitimate rights and interests of various ethnic and religious groups, and then move on to the changes, and not vice versa - to remove (Bashar) al-Assad, and then think what to do,” said Putin at a Kremlin meeting with Angela Merkel.
The West is trying to accuse Russia that it supports the ‘bloody Assad’s regime’. However, as emphasized by Sergei Demidenko an expert at the institute of strategic studies and analysis, “we are not allies of Assad, we always emphasize this. We are not for Assad, we are for the settlement.”
“Our main victory will actually be the sheer fact of holding this conference,” says the analyst. “It is necessary to start doing something and bring parties to the conflict to the conference table on any terms, and it is the most important thing for Russia.”
As far back as August last year the NATO leading countries stood for military interference in the conflict on the side of the forces opposed to Assad, but now they realize that he appears to be the only figure that can keep the country from chaos and transformation into a private domain of al-Qaeda whose strengthening is not needed even by Saudi Arabia that remains the sole sponsor of the irreconcilable opposition. Thus, in conversation with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that “more than 50% of Syrians support Assad.”
The West makes a noticeable turn in the Syrian crisis: it removes the requirement of immediate departure of the SAR President from power and does not object to his participation in the next elections. This became known after a meeting of Syria’s Friends held last week in London. A reversal of the West’s position has made the Saudi diplomats say: their country will solve the Syrian problem “without anyone’s help”.
Intelligence services of a number of European countries supporting the Syrian opposition, started consultations with Damascus, trying to achieve the coordination of efforts in addressing the security issues. The West is getting into contact being concerned about the prospect of returning European jihadists from Syria to Europe and the U.S..
It took almost a year and a half for Russia, the U.S. and the UN to bring the Syrian sides to the conference table. Russia warned the West that it would force itself into a corner by supporting the not controlled by anyone jihadists who can at any moment turn their weapons against the West.
It is due to the West’s position that the oppositionists were convinced that ‘overseas will help them’ to quickly remove President Bashar al-Assad and were slow to begin negotiations with the ‘murderous regime’ representatives. However, the conflict dragged on, ‘overseas’ in the name of the United States and some other Western countries did not come to the aid of the revolutionaries and even began to push them to dialogue with the official Damascus. As a result of the titanic efforts of diplomats from Russia, the U.S. and the UN, the conduct of the Geneva II talks was made possible.
However, one should not expect the decision-making during the first round of negotiations. In Montreux, Switzerland, on January 22, there will be only a launch of negotiations that, given the positions of the sides, may extend indefinitely. The major task of the international community under the circumstances is to steer the talks in the right direction. And the efforts here should be directed to one side, which, for obvious reasons, is extremely problematic.
Nevertheless, the international community should not stop the attempts not only to bring the Syrian sides to the conference table, but also keep them there, as the situation in Syria, where people are dying every day, only exacerbates the state of affairs in the already volatile region of the Middle East.