Dueling opinions aired at Syrian peace talks

Talks that began Wednesday in Switzerland saw fiery exchanges by rival parties that underscored the dim prospects for a political end to Syria's civil war.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
UN special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the opening of the Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux January 22, 2014. Syria's government and opposition, meeting face to face for the first time at a UN peace conference, angrily spelled out their hostility on Wednesday as world powers also restated contrasting views on the future of President Bashar al-Assad.

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"The aim is ambitious, but the expectations are low," wrote CNN. The talks are "a study in low expectations," according to USA Today. "Expectations are low, very low. Even the most optimistic diplomat is not expecting a resolution of the conflict at Geneva," the Guardian writes

The pundits' pessimism appears to be warranted. The Syrian opposition and the Syrian government are at odds even on the basic premise of UN-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland against a backdrop of continued fighting in Syria

Analysts say the difference of opinion is straightforward and yet hard to reconcile. Syrian government representatives maintain that no foreign powers have the right to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, while the opposition insists that the whole point of the peace conference is to begin discussing a transitional government that does not include Mr. Assad. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Wednesday from the podium in Montreaux that no one but the Syrian people had the right to remove their leader, then implied that members of the opposition -- who sought to do just that when they launched their uprising in March 2011 -- were terrorists.

"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Syrians here in this hall participated in all what has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent."

Meanwhile,  Amhad al-Jarba, the head of Syria's Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said that any discussion of allowing Assad to remain in power would end the talks. A transitional government "is the only topic for us."

Using strong language, US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this point. "We really need to deal with reality. Mutual consent, which is what has brought us here for a transition government, means that that government cannot be formed with someone who is objected to by one side or the other. That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government," he said.

"There's no way, no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people can regain the legitimacy to govern," Kerry said today in Montreaux (video).

But, according to CNN, the Syrian government delegation has arrived with the goal of arranging a cease-fire in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, that could then be extended to other parts of the country. This is a very different goal than that of the opposition and most of the parties at the conference who are focused on a political deal for ending the conflict. A previous peace conference held in 2012 laid out a framework for a transitional government in Syria. 

The conference became rancorous in its first hours, according to an account from CBS:

In a sign of the tension within the conference, Muallem exceeded the time allotted to him for his opening speech, but when challenged by [UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon], he refused to stop short, telling the UN Secretary-General, "you live in New York, I live in Syria," and demanding time to finish his remarks. 

"Our mandate here is to transmit the will of the Syrian people, and not to determine their fate," said Muallem. "The Syrian people are the ones who have the right to determine their fate and to decide on who governs them."

When Muallem finally concluded his speech, Ban lamented that "the constructive mood which I set has been broken," and he pleaded with Ahmed Jarba of the SNC, who was to speak next, not to match Muallem's tone with accusations aimed at specific governments or extensive anecdotes of atrocities. 

Jarba returned fire without hesitation, accusing the Assad regime of being the "terrorists" and asking the conference attendees "who do you trust?"

The government delegation speaks in Montreaux from a position of strength, writes Joshua Landis, who runs the prominent blog Syria Comment, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera America. The loyalty of the Syrian Army, superior weapons, and fragmentation of the rebel forces have all combined to make Assad stronger than he was two years ago, he explains. This is why he can afford to brush off demands for a transitional government.

Instead, Assad has said Syria will hold elections this year and that he saw no reason why he wouldn't take part. Landis says Assad made a calculated bet on a violent putdown of a popular uprising in 2011. 

Assad's game plan was to confront unarmed civil disobedience with gunfire, betting that turning the uprising into an armed rebellion would push extremist forces to the fore, which would alienate key Syrian and foreign stakeholders. He prioritized geography, withdrawing from the regions that hold less strategic value or are ungovernable by his regime in order to consolidate his hold on core geographic assets, such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and the highways linking them to the Alawite population centers on the coast. Although he ceded control of the poorest and most heavily Sunni provinces of northern and eastern Syria, his army has been able to retain bases in every major northern city. Government artillery and aircraft continue to bombard rebel-held areas at will, creating chaos and sowing dissention.

So, although Assad’s representatives have gone to the negotiating table in Switzerland, it is not clear they are there to seek compromise. But others might.

Striking a slightly more optimistic note, Ken Sofer of the Center for American Progress writes at Foreign Policy that the more significant conversations are happening on the sidelines of the conference.

The conventional wisdom is that under these circumstances, the US push to build consensus and find common ground between the Assad regime and the deeply fractured opposition is deeply naïve and divorced from realities on the ground. But for all the talk about regime-opposition negotiations, the most important conversation at Geneva this week doesn't involve anyone from Syria. Instead of trying to build consensus for a political solution on Syria from the inside-out, the United States, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, appears to be trying to build consensus for a deal from the outside-in. By working out a deal between the key power brokers on Syria's future, first the United States and Russia, and then widening the circle to include critical regional players, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the international community can eventually force a deal on the belligerents to end the Syrian civil war.

The UAE, Turkey, and Qatar, who armed Assad's opponents, are coming around to the idea that "Syria will be solved politically, not militarily," Sofer writes; Saudi Arabia is also alarmed by the rise of terrorist groups. Meanwhile, he claims, Iran's negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program have made Iran more willing to work with the international community on other issues. The targeting of Iranian officials by Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria may also persuade Tehran that a political settlement is desirable.

And while a "wide gap" remains between the US and Russia on what a solution looks like, they at least agree that a political solution is needed, Mr. Sofer argues. 

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