Can the Geneva meeting on Syria accomplish anything?

Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria, says he is 'optimistic' the emergency meeting on Syria will yield results, but the parties involved have already staked out some irreconcilable demands.

Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP
Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria, speaks during a press briefing at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 22.

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The prospects for the emergency meeting on Syria slated to begin tomorrow looked dim Friday, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying that his country's war is an "internal issue which has nothing to do with foreign countries."

The United Nations Security Council members and Turkey are gathering in Geneva to discuss UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan's plan for an interim unity government for Syria. Yet BBC reports that Mr. Assad said in an interview with Iranian state TV, broadcast yesterday, that "foreign pressure will not have an influence on our stance. We have been under pressure for a long time, and it did not have an effect in the past, and it will not have any influence in the future." The interview was recorded last week.

The red lines set out by Assad, the opposition, and foreign powers may scuttle Mr. Annan's plan before the meeting even begins. The opposition has said it will not stand for a government that retains Assad, while Russia, whose opposition to international action against the regime has been the key obstacle since the conflict began, announced in would not endorse a transition plan that required Assad to step down.

According to the BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday: "We will not support and cannot support any meddling from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of the president of the country, Bashar al-Assad."

Despite the seemingly irreconcilable positions, Annan said today that he is "optimistic" that the Geneva talks would end with acceptable progress, and dismissed news reports suggesting that the gap between Russia and the rest of the parties at the meeting is too large to bridge, according to The New York Times. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that it was "very clear" that all the parties to the meeting are on board with Annan's proposal, according to the Associated Press.

Annan has not yet proposed a formal transition plan; the intention is to lay out the parameters at the meeting. But details of the proposal began leaking out earlier this week, angering Russia, according to the Times.

Hints of Mr. Annan’s possible route to a diplomatic compromise emerged Wednesday when Reuters quoted unidentified diplomats as saying Russia and other powers supported his idea of a Syrian government of national unity that would include opposition figures but exclude those whose participation would undermine it — language that clearly was meant to refer to President Bashar al-Assad. But details were vague.

Part of the purpose of the meeting, a diplomat based in Geneva said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is to uncouple the process of achieving a cease-fire from the increasing demands that Mr. Assad’s government be held to account for human rights abuses, which a United Nations panel said Wednesday have continued on “an alarming scale.”

“I consider it a sign of an unscrupulous approach to diplomacy that there are leaks to the press about certain formulas, certain ideas, that are being recommended as part of a final document by specific countries,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Bloomberg reports that, according to three UN officials, all of the meeting participants agreed to an outline of a unity government plan from Annan. “The conflict must be resolved through peaceful dialogue and negotiation alone,” the outline, which Bloomberg obtained, says. “Conditions conducive to a political settlement must now be put in place.”

Russia denied any sort of agreement. A foreign ministry official told Bloomberg that it made an alternative proposal and won't back a plan that forces Assad to step down. But two UN diplomats said that despite public statements that Russia remains opposed to regime change, a shift has occurred behind closed doors because "Russia is keen to engineer a soft landing to raise its standing in the region by acting as a peace broker."

Russian anger stems from the fact that "the Russians do not like to have deals they are cutting in private to be exposed in public" before they are ready, Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, told Bloomberg. “They are very concerned that their so-called partners on the other side may be leaking it to force their hands to do more than what they have signaled they were ready to do.”

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