Syria Crisis: On the Road to Geneva-2

Even if the Geneva conference takes place, representation at it will not be so substantial, and will hardly reflect the entire range of attitudes and interests of all parties involved in the conflict. Russia may suggest a conference, but it cannot predict its outcome. The Arab League has become a fairly obedient instrument in the hands of the leading Gulf countries.

The armed conflict in Syria has lasted for more than two years. Hostilities are raging in different parts of the country without any obvious progress on either side. Experts point out that attempts to resolve this problem by force are bound to fail. They fear that the conflict may develop into an interfaith regional war. They believe it is possible to avoid this turn of events by stepping up diplomatic efforts to overcome the crisis. In this context, contacts between the leaders of Russia, the United States and Great Britain have produced a proposal to hold an international conference on Syria with a view toward finding a political settlement of the Syrian problem. This conference will serve as a continuation of the previous meeting in Geneva, and has been dubbed Geneva-2 by the media.

Recently, Moscow has hosted three guests in a row: US Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Are their visits linked? It's possible, but each of these statesmen still pursued his own goal.

One British publication wrote on the eve of Cameron’s arrival in Moscow that his visit was following hints by the Kremlin about its readiness to sacrifice its long-standing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to prevent further bloodshed. This is unlikely to be true and sounds like a journalistic exaggeration, if only because Russia’s position on Assad and the Syrian regime has undergone major changes. At first, Moscow declared its support for the regime (albeit in a roundabout way), but later it stopped thinking it is worth fighting for (today this is obvious, judging by repeated statements by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov).

Russia is proceeding with a view to create conditions for eliminating the conflict. It should be said that on the whole, Great Britain has somewhat softened its position as regards Syria.

The aforementioned visits were productive – they produced a proposal to conduct a second conference on Syria.

The statements made by Lavrov and Kerry in their recent joint news conference (dubbed by the Arab press as “Lavrov’s plan on settling the Syrian conflict”) make it possible to assume that Russia and the United States would like to determine the course of events in the region without regard of the geopolitical ambitions of the region’s countries – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said recently that Syria has crossed the US-drawn red line by using chemical weapons against its own people. He did not specify what should come next, but the Saudi and Qatari leaders directly support the idea of armed interference in the Syrian conflict. That said, I don’t believe the West will take such a step. US President Barack Obama has said on more than one occasion that he rules out the possibility of armed intervention at this stage in the Syrian conflict.

As for the proposal on the upcoming conference, its very adoption is already a source of optimism, if only because it will provide a short respite for Syrians. However, I don’t think it can be fully representative for several reasons.

First, there are certain difficulties concerning the attendance of all parties in the conflict. It has been reported that the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Syrian Government are ready to take part in the conference. But the coalition unites the most diverse political forces. Moaz al-Khatib said the coalition is ready to take part in the conference for the sake of ending the suffering of the Syrian people. That said, we should not forget he no longer heads the coalition. A substantial part of the Syrian opposition forces are outside the coalition. Will the Free Syrian Army send its representatives to the conference? Radical groups and other Islamic forces, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, are also of interest, but they are not expressing any attitude to the conference. It is also unclear to what extent President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Government, which describe the opposition as rapists and terrorists, are ready to conduct dialogue with them, let alone reach a compromise on domestic issues.

It is also very important to determine external players. Will Iran take part in the conference? I don’t think that today Iran can be isolated from the resolution of Syrian domestic problems. If this happens, its regional rivals, above all the Saudis, will stand to gain. It is an open secret that Syria is a kind of a field of confrontation for these two countries. Therefore, Iran should be invited if only to balance out the over-ambitious plans of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has an even more radical position.

Another matter is whether the domestic situation will allow Iran to participate in the conference, especially considering the forthcoming elections.

To sum up, even if the conference takes place, representation at it will not be so substantial, and will hardly reflect the entire range of attitudes, ideas, views and interests of all parties involved in the conflict.
I don’t mean to say that the conference should not take place. I think more time should be spent on its preparation than is currently planned.

Russia’s role as one of its initiators shows that it is a key player on the Syrian front. But not everything will depend on Russia – it may suggest a conference, but it cannot predict its outcome. In my opinion, Russia's role can be expressed as follows: 1) to promote cooperation with America and achieve better understanding on Syrian issues; 2) to involve Iran in the conference; and 3) to use its opportunities in the Arab League. These opportunities are not so substantial, because after the events of the Arab Spring, the Arab League has become a fairly obedient instrument in the hands of the leading Gulf countries. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.