Insight: At Syrian peace table, embittered enemies face off

GENEVA Tue Jan 28, 2014 8:51am EST

1 of 3. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem awaits the peace talks in Montreux January 22, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

GENEVA (Reuters) - When Syria's political foes met across a negotiating table for the first time in nearly three years of conflict, the top priority was to keep them from walking out.

Diplomats had talked up the importance of getting the two sides in the same room in Geneva, but at one point things were so bad that it looked like that room might be the departure lounge at the city's airport.

But meet in the conference chamber they did, cajoled by officials who arranged the agenda to allow each delegation something it could live with. None of the diplomats Reuters spoke to for this article wanted to contemplate the consequences of failure.

"If this conference fails then the situation will explode regionally," said one diplomatic source, like others speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate negotiations.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi began by focusing on a deal on humanitarian access to the besieged and starving city of Homs before steering the talks towards the highly contentious question of a political settlement of a war that has killed 130,000 and forced millions to flee their homes.

While both sides are ready to discuss a 2012 document which called for political transition, their interpretations of it are wildly divergent. The opposition say it means President Bashar al-Assad must step aside while the government says calls for his departure are the stuff of fantasy.

Diplomats said that to square that kind of circle, they will have to keep the talks going for months or perhaps even years.

The hope is that over time the membership of delegations will evolve, with the opposition becoming more representative of the people doing the fighting and the government side reflecting a reappearance of doubts about Assad's durability.

"The longer the talks last, the more likely different opponents will join the process," said the diplomatic source. Other sources said if the Geneva process takes off, support for Assad on the government side of the table may weaken.

But opposition unity is at least as fragile and will be sorely tested if the talks drag on without result. The continued acquiescence in the negotiations shown by some rebel groups in Syria can also not be taken for granted, and al Qaeda-linked fighters reject them outright.

STAGE MANAGEMENT

In the meantime, delegates sat in silence on opposite wings of a U-shaped table as Brahimi set out his agenda. And when the heads of delegation spoke, it was to Brahimi not to each other.

The painstaking stage management, designed to keep friction to a minimum and restrain mutual hatred, was part of a finely tuned diplomatic effort to lock the sides into talks.

"It's just the nature of this, that it could stall or explode any day," said a Western diplomat after the first face-to-face meeting in the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room on the 5th floor of the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva.

He said, only half-joking, that the room in a sealed-off section of the labyrinthine U.N. complex was selected specifically for its inaccessibility - out of reach of journalists, diplomats and other potential interference.

Those practical preparations were matched by the patient diplomacy of Brahimi himself in the months leading up to the talks as he, along with the United States and Russia, pushed the wary parties towards the negotiating process.

"Expectations are low so we'll see how things develop day by day. Every day that they talk is a little step forward," another diplomatic source in Geneva said on the eve of talks which the opposition only formally agreed to just over a week ago.

While Western and other nations backing the opposition met its chief negotiator every evening to discuss strategy and calm nerves, diplomats said they were looking to Russia, Assad's major ally, to press the government side to let aid into Homs. Other proposals included local ceasefires and prisoner swaps.

"They (the Russians) want this process to succeed, but this will be a test for them on how much sway they really have on the regime," the diplomatic source said.

BACK FROM THE BRINK

Aware of the enormous challenge of finding common political ground in the middle of a civil war, Brahimi avoided diving straight into the most divisive issue - the future of Assad.

The 80-year-old veteran of conflict resolution has never portrayed himself as a man in a hurry. "I didn't say going slow is great. I am saying be careful, don't run before you can walk," he told journalists.

Brahimi's strategy does appear to have tied the two sides into the negotiations just a few days after they came to the brink of disaster.

On Friday, both threatened to pull out - the opposition refusing to talk until the government signed up to the 2012 Geneva accord on Syria, and the government warning it would return to Damascus unless the talks started the next day.

Those threats have subsided, replaced by a qualified readiness to engage in political issues which Brahimi says form the core of his mission - albeit from largely irreconcilable positions and laced with acrimonious public exchanges.

"I am happy because in general there is mutual respect and they are aware of the fact that this attempt is very important and must continue," he said.

SITTING WITH THE ENEMY

Sitting down with their opponents in the sparsely furnished negotiating room - complete with translators' cubicles in the corner for Brahimi's non-Arabic speaking staff - has not been easy. Delegates from each side make no effort to hide the disdain they feel for their opponents.

The last time 83-year-old Haitham al-Maleh looked across a table to a representative of Assad's government was when he was being interrogated, he said. The former judge served a total of 10 years in prison on charges which included "weakening national morale".

"I kept looking at them one by one," Maleh said of the government delegation. "I have spent a long time in jail and I have seen this regime kill and torture its people. But I still don't understand how anyone could defend it".

At the official start of the talks on Friday, activists Rima Fleihan and Suhair al-Atassi carried pictures of Abdelaziz al-Khayyer, a veteran dissident who was abducted in Damascus two years ago and whose fate remains unknown.

"The regime needs at least to feel shame," Fleihan said.

For the government, sitting down for talks with people it has blamed for inciting bloodshed has also been a challenge.

"We sit across the table because we love our country," presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said as she arrived one morning at the United Nations from the lakeside Hotel de la Paix (Peace Hotel) where the government delegates are staying.

"We are here because we don't want to leave a door unopened if we can help our people and put an end to this terrorism and put an end to this horrible war," she said.

Asked to describe the mood at the first meeting, Shaaban said: "No tension. Calm and logical talks."

Brahimi characterized the first sessions as a civilized discussion and a "good beginning", a message reinforced by diplomats who described the talks as free from drama.

The opposition's Western and Gulf Arab backers hope that the longer the talks last - especially if they start to bear fruit - the more chance the opposition has of winning support from rebels who remain either suspicious or openly hostile to the talks and owe no allegiance to the political exiles.

But the opposition, aware that that strategy could backfire and that prolonged talks could simply harden the hostility of rebels and Syrian civilians, has told the West it will not get sucked into a stagnant process which resembles the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

For now in Geneva, though, few people's horizon extends beyond the immediate days ahead. "I can't tell you where this is going," the Western envoy said. "But there were a lot of people who said this will collapse on day one. And it hasn't."

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Comments (3)
Fromkin wrote:
This is a useless and meaningless propaganda piece.

The reality is that the Syrian delegation is negotiating with the US delegation hiding behind “Syrian opposition” mask.

The US is the real sworn enemy of Syria since at least “The Syrian Accountability and Lebanon Sovereignty Restoration act of December 2003 introduced by a Jewish congressman Eliot Engel and a Jewish congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen respectively from New York and Florida, both bastions of a certain tribe dominating politics in the US.

Robert Ford, an expert in “revolutions” using death squads, is leading the US delegation in the negotiation and pursuing the US’ stated goal of regime change.

The Syrian delagation understands the game and is playing along. It has on its hands a precious good that the US wants which is SYRIAN SOVEREIGNTY and I don’t think this delegation of seasoned professional diplomats will transfer even a fraction of IT to the US through its proxies.

The US has already lost this game. It’s just a question of whether it should lose BIG or lose SMALL. That’s not up to the Syrian delegation but to Russia to determine. This is what is being negotiated at geneva 2.

People need to google “The Syrian Accountability Act” and Eliot Engel or Ileana Ros Lehtinen and see how the Jewish lobby has been pushing the US to attack Middle East countries one after the other.

The article above about “embittled enemies” is just a sort diversionary tactics.

Here is what one of the warmongers at the American Entreprise Institute declared as they were peddling the Srian Accountability act:

“Typical were the remarks of Michael
Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute, who declared in an April 2003
address, “The time for diplomacy is at an end;
it is time for a free Iran, free Syria and free
Lebanon.”

At first the US through the Bush administration rejected the Legislation in 2002 hoping that Syria would do this:

“The Bush administration has called on the
Assad regime to halt its support for terrorist
organizations and to expel terrorist groups
from Syria. Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad,
the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine, and the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine–General Command all
maintain offices in Damascus.”

Cool heads at the time (2002-2003) thought this about the Syrian Acountability Act:

“Enforcing the Syria
Accountability Act is a move in the opposite
direction—toward confrontation and conflict.”

Confrontation and conflict they predicted and wich we have now between Syria and the US through its global Jihad army and on behalf of Israel.

About two years after that legislation Hezbollah was attacked in 2006 and Hamas was attacked in 2008. Israel failed miserably at both attacks. And Iran was attacked in 2009 Color Revolution style and 2011 Syria attacked Arab Spring style.

Jan 28, 2014 4:40pm EST  --  Report as abuse
xcanada2 wrote:
Thanks again Fromkin, for your comments!

For some reason, Obama’s chemical red line didn’t work?

Jan 28, 2014 8:47pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Fromkin wrote:
@xcanada2

There was a rational behind Obama’s red line but warmongers and the media twisted it as a red line against using chemical weapons. Obama’s red line was never meant to be a pretext to attack Syria. He issued it in good faith based on faulty intelligence.

Thousands of militants stationed and trained in Jordan were ready to launch an attack against Damascus in what they called “Operation Damascus volcano” and which was supposed to be the final blow to the Syrian government.

Obama issued the red line because he was mislead by fake intelligence probably from Israel alleging that Damascus was about to fall and that the only way the Syrian government could survive was by using chemical weapons like Saddam Hussein did.

So Obama came out of the White House front porch to issue that warning confident that Damascus was about to fall. That was his pre-”mission accomplished” moment.

But that attack was repelled, thousands of militants were killed, and Israel’s interventions with some air strikes were not able to reverse rebels’fortune.

At that point for Obama the red line became useless and dead. But Israel and Saud Arabia were determined to still use it as a casus belli since militants were failing. So they cooked the chemical weapons issue to force Obama’s hands…..And actually provided militants with chemical weapons to use in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus…..

So Obama fell into Israeli and Saudi trap and had to run to Putin to bail him out….

Jan 29, 2014 12:19am EST  --  Report as abuse
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