While the latest round of talks in Geneva ended in a deadlock, the situation equally proved to be a marked contrast to what the Russian-led peace processes have so far been able to produce in terms of creating a number of de-escalation zones, totally defeating the ISIS and moving at rapid pace towards a viable political settlement. The chaos that Syria was for almost 6 years has not largely calmed down, but the countries that created that chaos in the first place continue to stay stubborn in their opposition to establishing genuine peace in Syria, without which no meaningful progress can be hoped to make on any other front, be it constitutional processes or the question of holding fresh elections. After the talks in Geneva, the UN mediator Staffan de Mistura said that the failure was largely due to the Syrian government’s delegation’s refusal to negotiate with the Syrian opposition. The Syrian delegation had refused to engage in talks because of the opposition’s insistence on removing Assad from power.
While it is highly ironical to see the opposition demanding the removal of a regime that has played a central role in defeating ISIS, the fact remains that the demand for removal has no popular basis, at least there is no credible evidence to this end, and that this demand very much remains a demand of the chief external sponsors of this opposition groups.
As such, in de Mistura’s view that the demand for Assad’s removal had been “mistakenly” made is hidden the old agenda that had led to war in Syria. It is ironical that de Mistura, the ‘responsible’ UN mediator, seems to have completely forgotten that demand for removal came from the Syrian opposition after they had met in Riyadh under Saudi Arabia’s auspices. It was in Saudi Arabia that Syria’s various opposition groups met in November and it was Saudi Arabia that played a pivotal role in establishing an “expanded” high negotiation committee, consisting of 50 members which then made the demand for Assad’s removal from the office and put it as a pre-condition for transition. And, it was in their joint communique that the opposition representatives said a peaceful and unbiased transition “will not happen without the departure of Bashar Assad and his cronies and the repression machine at the start of the transition period.”
Further augmenting the joint view presented by the “expanded” opposition, Ahmed Ramadan, an opposition member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), said that “the message (ostensibly to Syria and its allies) today is that we have a unified vision when it comes to negotiations.”
And while Saudia Arabia fully backed the opposition’s unity as well as their demands, the UN mediator, who tried to put a cover of “mistake” on the opposition’s demand for Assad’s removal, was actually in full praise of the House of Saud for its efforts to restore peace in Syria. Just before the latest round of talks had kick-started in Geneva, de Mistura thanked, according to Saudi Arabia’s state news agency SPA, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its initiative and efforts at the second expanded meeting of the Syrian opposition, which succeeded in uniting the opposition and forming an expanded delegation to the Geneva negotiations on Syria.”
Significantly enough, his expression of gratitude came on December 1, almost a week after the Syrian opposition had issued its joint statement, calling for Assad’s removal from power, and de Mistura seemed to have completely ‘forgotten’ to remind Saudi Arabia and the opposition of the “mistake” they had made in their statement. It was only after the Syrian government’s demand for taking back the statement that it came to de Mistura’s mind that the statement was only a “mistake” and, therefore, need not be taken seriously.
But it was again only de Mistura who said that the statement had been issued mistakenly. The Syrian opposition’s main backers, Saudi Arabia and the US, did not find anything “wrong” with it. On the contrary, the US state department commended the Syrian opposition’s “constructive participation”, which it said stood in contrast to the “obstructionism and procrastination” of the Syrian government delegation.
It is quite evident that the renewed demand for Assad’s removal was aimed at dealing a deadly blow to the prospects of any meaningful progress on peace in Geneva. The handlers of the opposition groups are certainly not interested in seeing Geneva talks succeed because that would prove to be the last nail in the coffin of their interests in Syria, where Russia has already emerged as the leading peace broker.
But in the US and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to sabotage peace, there is little to no hope of success. With war rapidly waning and with reconstruction of the country gradually becoming the pre-dominant concern, it is all but a matter of time that a number of other external actors such as China, Japan, and even Europe would step forward, making it all the more difficult for the US and Saudia to pursue their rugged and defeated regime-change agenda.
Already China is itching to include Syria in its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as part of its own policy to expand its influence in the Middle East. China’s foreign ministry recently announced its support for Assad’s government and offered support on three focal points — counter-terrorism, dialogue and reconstruction –for solving the Syrian issue as “the situation in Syria is turning into a new stage.” On November 21, China delivered 1,000 tons of rice to Syria as part of its food aid plan under the BRI. According to China’s state media, China has already signed three agreements with the Syrian government to provide humanitarian aid to Syria worth over $40 million in the first half of 2017.
While the US-Saudia nexus is still clinging to its old agenda, the way end-game in Syria is unfolding is going to leave this nexus with little to no options to manipulate the final political settlement. Already a number of opposition groups, including Kurds, have joined the Russia-led peace process in Sochi and Astana. It is, therefore, only a matter of time that the Saudi backed “expanded” opposition will start feeling the heat of reconciliation being achieved elsewhere. Only the fear of being left out of any future settlement will propel them to adopting a more realistic pragmatic approach.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.