Progress has been staunched in the Geneva talks primed to end the six-year Syrian conflict. Finding a common ground between the warring parties to the horrendous civil war has become a hard nut to crack for the United Nations-led initiative. Yet, reason must prevail to give peace a chance, and bring the carnage and humanitarian tragedy the crisis has created to an end.
A ceasefire has been in place since February 27 to prepare the ground for the peace efforts, just as Russian President, Vladimir Putin, began to withdraw his troops from Syria penultimate week, a move that surprised the United States and others opposed to his role in the conflict. The endless gridlock had forced the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to travel to Moscow to meet with Putin to explore the possibility of his prodding President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to get serious with the dialogue. Putin believes his country’s six month-long intervention has achieved its objective of helping Assad to regain territories lost to the opposition fighters.
First, the composition of the delegates to the peace talks has not been agreed on. The Syrian government delegation, led by Bashar al-Jaafari, has not accepted to hold any discussion with the delegation of the main Syrian opposition, dismissing the group as a “terrorist Saudi delegation, headed by a murderer.” Its leader, Mohammed Allousah, wants Assad tried in court for his role in the fratricidal warfare, just as he is irked by the involvement of the Moscow group in the Geneva dialogue.
Besides, the Kurds fighting for autonomy in the north were not included. They feel alienated and want a federal Syria put in place, which the government delegation is not prepared to accept. But the UN team led by its special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is predisposed to a more inclusive gathering in deference to the country’s demographic diversity. There are Turks and Arabs in the northern region dominated by the Kurds, a political reality that Turkey has checkmated for almost a decade by moving against Kurdistan independence.
These disparate groups have common enemies in Islamic State of Iran and Syria and al-Qaeda Syrian franchise, al-Nura Front. These Islamist groups are not part of the Geneva meeting. But the biggest obstacle is the place of Assad in the envisaged new order in Syria. A transitional government that will last for 18 months, followed by a new constitution, parliamentary and presidential elections, with Assad out of the equation, has been a long-standing agenda pursued by the main Syrian opposition, and shared by the UN, the US and Saudi Arabia. Assad is not prepared to leave office just yet and is backed to the hilt by Russia and Iran, among others.
How to lubricate this delicate chain of vested interests was what de Mistura meant when he described the Syrian political transition as “the mother of all issues.” It is rightly so. But the situation is not beyond redemption. The crisis escalated to its present level because of its proxy undertones. Iran, Assad’s ally in the Middle-East, and Saudi Arabia appropriated the conflict as part of their sectarian and political battle for supremacy in the region. So did Russia and the US. The US is a supplier of arms to the rebels trying to oust Assad from office, while Russia and Iran provide Damascus with ordnance. It is, indeed, a messy war theatre.
But the bloody conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives must be resolved for the sake of world peace and the victims. Now, with Russia limiting its involvement in the war, it should be encouraged to go the whole hog by influencing Asaad to see the bigger picture: accepting overtures that will end the bloodbath and misery of his people. Darayya, a suburb of Damascus held by the rebels, has not accessed food, water and medicine from the UN and other humanitarian organisations since December 2013. The UN has complained that it is finding it difficult to access six besieged towns among which are Harasta and Douma. Out of 1.1 million people it wants its aid to reach by the end of April, beneficiaries so far are well below a quarter of that figure.
Out of 11 million pre-war population, there were 6.6 million Syrians who were internally displaced as of December 31, 2015. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the country has 4.5 million refugees in five countries alone within the region: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, with Turkey’s 2.5 million being the highest, followed by the 1.1 million people in Lebanon. There are others in Europe.
It took the tear-jerking picture of Ayan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy, who died in a boat tragedy while his family was fleeing Syria, and his body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, last year, to get the world to appreciate the Syrian debacle and offer some help.
However, the ultimate succour is in the construct Kerry made recently in Paris at a forum with some European colleagues. “All of us have come here united in our deep belief that the Syrian civil war must end,” he said. The moral responsibility of shared humanity should be summoned to work by all the delegates to the talks to make this happen in Geneva. The world cannot wait any longer for it