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Why Geneva Was a ‘Diplomatic Victory’ for the Opposition

Last week, Andrew Tabler addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Tabler is a senior fellow in the Institute’s Program on Arab Politics and author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

Written by Andrew Tabler Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

The following is a rapporteur’s summary of his remarks.

Last week’s talks in Montreux were a tactical diplomatic victory for the Syrian opposition. While the regime’s foreign minister Walid Mouallem had a tense exchange with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, forcing the regime delegation to take a more conciliatory tone ahead of subsequent talks in Geneva, the opposition’s tone was much more measured. Early signs show that the talks have also restored some credibility to the United States and the UN.

In terms of content, the regime focused overwhelmingly on its fight against “terrorism.” Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba similarly addressed the “slaughter” and other atrocities occurring in his country, but he blamed the regime for the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a major al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

In Geneva, the parties have attempted to address the humanitarian situation in Homs, one of the hardest hit, most besieged areas. The opposition Syrian National Coalition has better relationships with armed groups in that area, and the militias themselves have better command-and-control there.

The regime has agreed to allow humanitarian deliveries, which are enshrined under international humanitarian law, but only if armed fighters depart assisted areas. In terms of evacuating Syrians from besieged areas, the regime has agreed to let women and children exit but is demanding that all male evacuees give their names before leaving — a nonstarter for all other parties.

The talks have reached an impasse on the issue of transferring power to a transitional government. The regime’s negotiating team reportedly presented a “declaration of principles” that did not mention a power transfer, and the opposition summarily rejected it. The regime’s untenable position at Geneva is essentially a forced settlement masquerading as a democratic process. President Bashar al-Assad maintains that the political mechanism for settling the crisis centers on this spring’s presidential “election.” Following the February 2012 constitutional referendum, presidential elections in Syria must now be multi-candidate, multiparty contests. Yet candidates must still be approved by the Assad-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court. This fact, coupled with other manipulations, mean that Assad will assuredly win.

Regarding the controversy over Iran’s attendance at the talks, the United States has wisely insisted that Tehran cannot participate until it accepts a central tenet of the 2012 Geneva Communique: the formation of a “transitional governing body” (TGB) with “full executive powers” that will create a “neutral environment in which a transition can take place.” Yet Assad has rendered this provision meaningless by insisting that the TGB be formed “on the basis of mutual consent.” This loophole has allowed Russia to permit Assad’s inclusion in the TGB while claiming to remain committed to the communique. Assad is also unwilling to work with the Syrian National Coalition and other opposition groups, which he dismisses as proxies of regional and Western states. Moreover, anything decided during the Geneva process would need to be confirmed by a national referendum administered by the regime.

Going forward, the opposition and its international supporters should pursue a three-part strategy. First, they should focus on a transition that involves the departure of the regime’s core, including members of the Assad and Makhlouf families (who have privileged relationships with the elite 4th Armored Division) and the shabbiha militias. Second, they should avoid a forced settlement centered on the reelection of Assad, whose term expires on July 7. And third, they should prevent the regime from dragging its feet on implementation of the chemical weapons deal. Assad knows his usefulness to Russia and the United States will significantly diminish after he turns over all of those weapons, so he will attempt to tie any progress in Geneva to the chemical schedule.

Remarks reprinted courtesy of Andrew Tabler.

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