UNITED NATIONS— At an international peace conference for Syria in June 2012, participants agreed to what has become known as the Geneva Communiqué. It laid out a six-point plan intended to stop the violence and move the two sides towards a political settlement. The United Nations is trying to implement that framework at peace talks going on now in Switzerland where the two parties have finally agreed to meet.
In its language, the Geneva Communiqué calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body that would “exercise full executive powers.” It says that could include “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
At peace talks that opened Wednesday in Switzerland, which have become known in diplomatic shorthand as Geneva 2, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi made clear that the first Geneva Communiqué is the basis for these talks.
“What we will try to do is talk about how to end this bloody war. And for that, I think we have a kind of road map in the Communiqué of 30 June 2012, and we will see how we use that platform to best effect. We have no illusion that it is going to be easy, but we are going to try very hard,” said Brahimi.
Immediately, however, the talks looked troubled when the head of the Syrian government delegation, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, tried in his opening remarks to steer the focus away from a transitional governing body to a discussion of countering terrorism. Richard Gowan of New York University said that was a strategic miscalculation.
“They were too arrogant. The Syrian foreign minister was too aggressive. He looked irresponsible and a little drunk on power, frankly," Gowan explained. "And I think that does some diplomatic damage to President [Bashar al] Assad. It increases sympathy for the rebels.”
Randa Slim, a scholar with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says that opening day meeting in the town of Montreux, which included delegations from 40 countries, was a reality check for the Syrian government.
“It really exposed them to a thinking inside the international community that Geneva 1 is here to stay, and that it is something that everybody now has hitched their bandwagon to,” said Slim.
As for the opposition delegation, Professor Daniel Serwer of The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies said things have so far gone better for them than expected. “The big success of the opposition in the last couple of days has been to make the transitional governing body the only game in town. That really is an amazing success because it puts all the emphasis on the political transition,” he stated.
As NYU’s Gowan noted, the political transition as spelled out in the Geneva Communiqué is straightforward, except for one critical point. “I think that it provides a sort of framework for thinking how you move out of conflict. It is simply the question of Assad’s future that will be the sticking point,” he added.
The Syrian president's prospects could present a serious hurdle to a political settlement. It is not just the two Syrian sides that have widely divergent views on the subject. The United States and Russia, which are driving this peace process, do as well. Moscow has backed the Assad regime, while Washington supports the moderate opposition.
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that the language of the Geneva Communiqué does not say President Assad must be excluded from any future transition.
“If the ‘mutual consent’ is between the current regime and just part of the opposition, that would allow President Assad to stay in some scenarios. And that might be acceptable to the Russians; it might not be acceptable to the United States,” said Tabler.
Analysts said that while the concept of ‘mutual consent’ might mean Mr. Assad gets to stay in the short-term, he is unlikely to remain a powerful player or stay indefinitely.
They also doubt that any significant traction will be made quickly on the political front and only small confidence-building measures such as prisoner exchanges, localized cease-fires or improved humanitarian access, will be achieved at Geneva 2.
Whatever deals mediator Brahimi is able to make, Professor Serwer said, ultimately they will need the blessing not just of the U.S. and Russia, but of regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been fighting a proxy war in Syria.
“There has to be a kind of regional pact to go with the internal pact whenever the time comes, but we are nowhere near that time,” said Serwer.
As the negotiation process gets under way in Geneva within the framework of the Communiqué, only time will tell whether it is the road map mediator Brahimi hopes it will be for reaching the destination of political settlement.