January 22, 2014 has been named as the date for the new Geneva peace conference on Syria, but the agenda, make-up of the opposition delegation and list of countries to be invited still remain tentative.
“We will go to Geneva with a mission of hope,” said United
Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who thanked Russia and the
US for helping bring both sides to the negotiating tables despite
months of mounting obstacles, following the Geneva Communiqué
which outlined the framework for the peace conference as far back
as June 2012.
“The conflict in Syria has raged for too long. It would be unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction it has caused.”
But with dates for potential conferences having been named
several times before, only to be torpedoed by one of the parties
or a development in the civil war, a degree of skepticism is in
order until all sides have boarded the plane to Geneva.
The government of Bashar Assad says it agrees to participate “in principle”, but says there is no way the president will resign as a part of any negotiation, and insists he will run in any election that follows the civil war that has resulted in well over 100,000 deaths.
It also dismisses the legitimacy of the opposition, continuously referring to its opponents, who have recently suffered significant military setbacks, as “terrorists”.
“We are facing terrorism, confronting terrorism on behalf of the entire world,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the Financial Times in Damascus in the wake of Ban’s announcement.
On the other hand, the opposition has officially demanded that it will participate in the talks only if “the Assad Regime and those associated with him will have no role in the transitional period and future Syria.”
This stance was endorsed last month by the London 11 – the US and leading EU and Sunni Arab powers – who said that those “whose hands are stained with blood”, namely Assad, cannot lead the country in the future. The position is not likely to have any truck with the current regime in Damascus.
Besides, even if any compromise satisfactory to both parties were to be reached in Geneva at the beginning of next year, it is not clear how it would affect the course of the war, which has reached status quo after more than 30 months of fighting.
"Opposition political delegations do not have any power or influence on the Syrian street," said Fahed Al-Masri, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the leading anti-government military group.
"As the Syrian street does not recognize them, it would be impossible for them to be able to commit to anything, much less fulfil any pledges."
In fact, even forming a delegation that would represent the fractured opposition – that ranges from pro-democratic secular moderates to Wahhabi radicals - would seem an uphill task. Even before the deadly chemical attack in Damascus this summer, which broadened the fissure in Syrian society, the opposition struggled to nominate its representatives.
But instead of bringing the two direct negotiators closer in their position, much of the energy before January is likely to be expended on deciding who else should be propping up the parties on either side.
The United States was earlier vehemently opposed to Iran, Syria’s close Shi’ite ally, participating in the talks, while Russia has insisted that it be included. The recently concluded deal between Tehran and the world’s leading powers on its nuclear program could open the door to Iranian representation, though no side has confirmed anything.
"We haven't established a list yet,” said international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been instrumental in setting up the talks, when asked about Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s participation, though he named both countries as “possible” candidates.
Saudi Arabia, which has been the principal sponsor of rebel fighters and opposes Assad and Iran on sectarian lines, has been openly dismissive of the prospects of an effective peace conference, and has demonstratively urged the West to take firmer action.
The apprehension over the imminent summit was also expressed in the cautious statements from its main proponents Russia and the US, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying "that the obstacles on the road to a political solution are many” and that his country would enter the talks “with our eyes wide open.