Salvaging the Syrian peace conference
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
UNITED NATIONS, New York - The Syrian peace conference has now been delayed to sometime in July and the prospects for it appear doomed as a result of a host of factors pertaining to both the warring parties, that is, the Syrian government and the armed opposition, as well as the plethora of third parties considered as "stakeholders" in the deadly conflict. The question, then, is how to salvage it and raise the conference's chances to bring about a cease-fire and meaningful political dialogue for a Syrian transition?
At the moment, this appears to be a "very tall order", to paraphrase Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after his recent Paris meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has termed the conference as the "last chance" for peace in Syria.
As the conference co-sponsors, the US and Russia must first resolve their own serious disagreements prior to the gathering, but that does not seem likely in light of the US's unhappiness over Moscow's delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Damascus, confirmed by President Bashar al-Assad last week in an interview with the Lebanese media, not to mention Russia's serious misgivings about the European Union's decision to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian rebels.
The EU's decision has been a divisive one, with the polls in the United Kingdom showing that only a quarter of the electorate supports it, Germany distancing itself from it, and both Paris and London pledging to delay any arms shipment to Syrian rebels "until after the Geneva conference".
The rebels, on the other hand, failed to reach a consensus regarding "Geneva II" at their Istanbul gathering and then used the excuse of Iranian and Hezbollah "militias" in Syria to announce their boycott of the conference. Hopefully, this will not be their final statement on the matter, given the gravity of situation and the external dimensions of the conflict in Syria, which requires the participation of all the parties that are involved directly or indirectly.
Indeed, the scope of involvement of thousands of foreign fighters on the side of Syrian opposition - from some 29 countries, according to Damascus - renders meaningless the opposition's insistence that only the foreign elements backing Damascus be excluded from the Geneva meeting. In turn, this points at a cognitive barrier that must be tackled as part of pre-conference diplomacy, that is, identifying the multiple sources of Syrian conflict, the entwinement of a civil war with a wider regional conflict involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and the near impossibility of side-stepping the increasingly prominent sectarian dimension.
The rising sectarian tensions in Iraq have alarmed the Shi'ites in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere that the Saudi-backed Sunnis are intent on a "roll back strategy" that aims at restoring Sunni hegemony in Shi'ite-dominated Iraq, partly through causing an anti-Shi'ite setback in a Syrian "pivot".
With Iran suffering under tight Western sanctions, the Saudis and Qataris sense a historical opportunity to advance their anti-Shi'ite cause - in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Iran - which is why the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been deliberately hyping the "Iran nuclear threat" recently, to ensure sustained western pressure on Iran.
But the more the Syrian conflict is imagined in a sectarian light and according to "zero-sum" terms, the more intractable it becomes. This could well turn into a "lose-lose" proposition for both sides in the conflict, draining the Muslims' resources and entrenching them in a lengthy inter-Muslim conflict benefiting Israel first and foremost.
Such a scenario can only be avoided through Muslim unity and reciprocal Shi'ite-Sunni respect and tolerance for each other, keeping in mind the enmeshing of their "identity conflicts" with important geopolitical connotations implicating their common subordination to Western hegemony.
With respect to Iran, hopefully its next president will prioritize confidence-building with its Arab neighbors, particularly in the Persian Gulf, and steer clear of any hints of Iranian "superiority" and or ambition to dominate those neighbors. Already, Arabic-speaking Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has done much to improve the Arab-Iran climate, and the next administration would be remiss to replace Salehi with someone else.
According to a Tehran University political science professor, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, "Mr Salehi and other Iranian officials are fully aware of the need for a political solution in Syria. At the same time, because of foreign meddling in Syria, a strategic allay, they feel compelled to support President Assad while advising him to maintain dialogue with the opposition." Overall, this amounts to a "two-track" approach that was crystallized in last week's "friends of Syria" meeting in Tehran.
Tehran conference a step forward
Although it was largely ignored in the Western media, last week's Tehran's summit on Syria, under the slogan "political solution, regional stability", was a timely step forward that set up a contact group on Syria.
Calling for an international alliance for peace in Syria, Iranian officials seized on the opportunity to bolster their bid for inclusion at the Geneva meeting, with the Foreign Minister Salehi explicitly welcoming it and "the UN efforts". Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud were among the participants from 40 countries. UN special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, and the Organization of Islamic Conference secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu sent messages to the conference.
"[The] Tehran conference as well as the Geneva 2 conference are highly important and we hope they would help resolve the crisis in Syria, which is in a very complicated condition," Brahimi said in his message, seconded by Ban, whose message deplored the on-going atrocities and urged a political solution given the impossibility of a "military solution".
Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration has escalated the rhetoric against Lebanon's Hezbollah, which has thrown its weight behind the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime, by calling on the group to withdraw its fighters from Syria. Although the stakes in the Syrian conflict are high for Hezbollah, still it does not bode well for its political future in Lebanon to be so tightly involved in what is primarily a civil war, irrespective of foreign fighters' involvement in Syria. Certainly, if Iran is invited to the Geneva meeting, the opportunity to raise this important matter will be foisted on the participants, given Hezbollah's close connections to Iran.
The big question is, however, if the Geneva meeting can materialize at all and, more important, if this can avoid the prospect of a "peace conference that ends all peace"?
Perhaps what is needed is creative peace diplomacy, such as experimental "de-militarized zones" in parts of Syria, which would provide the space for a partial cease-fire and gradual reconciliation on the ground, in light of the rebels' diverse orientations and intense disagreements among them with respect to dialogue with Damascus.
In such a scenario, the UN and its subsidiary arms, such as the Peacebuilding Commission, can play a role in establishing incremental "zones of peace", as a prelude to a more generalized, that is, country-wide, ceasefire and the re-establishment of peace and tranquility.
Of course, this would require a much greater willingness for give and take on the part of the Syrian government, which is partly to blame for the present tragedy engulfing the whole country by virtue of its heavy-handed response to the pro-democracy protests of two years ago.
This too is an issue in which Iran, which has given generous credits to the financially strapped Syrian government, can be instrumental in the Geneva process and its aftermath, and all the more reason for countries such as France and even Saudi Arabia to drop their strong objections to Tehran's participation at the upcoming conference.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy(Westview Press). For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11(BookSurge Publishing, October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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