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Geneva II: How to debunk the myths and save Syria
January 18, 2014, 6:04 pm

In addition to their reputation as the world’s finest watchmakers, the Swiss are also proud of their quasi-monopoly on the conflict resolution business. On numerous occasions, they have successfully handled the challenge of mediating between some of the world’s most bitter enemies.

They have the people, facilities, knowledge and flexibility to bring together anyone, from women activists, to rebel leaders.

In two days, the media will focus on the highly anticipated Geneva II Syria Peace Summit. But what most may not know is that during the past two years, Syrian rebels, activists and opposition supporters – in addition to regional and international experts and diplomats – had already been receiving invitations to attend numerous workshops and conferences in various Swiss cities.

One of the major initiatives co-sponsored by the Swiss was the Day After Project. On its website they confidently explained that “To ensure a successful and orderly process, ‘The Day After’ project convened approximately 45 Syrians — representing the full spectrum of the opposition”.

In other words, conflict resolution initiatives have so far been aimed at bringing together the Syrian half of the population that the international community wanted, and fully expected, to win.

The catch here is that for over two years the Swiss, as well as their allies in the international community, have been wasting their time, resources and reputation betting on an assured and always imminent victory by the Syrian rebels.

Absent from those conferences were Syrian regime sympathizers that today (most analysts are finally prepared to admit) make up a very significant portion of the Syrian population – a segment that includes many non-sectarian Sunnis, and not only religious and ethnic minorities as many would like to believe.

No win scenario

A publicly distributed picture from the Aleppo Media Centre shows rebel fighters evading government troops. But can they be counted on to fight Al-Qaeda, asks Otrakji [AMC via AP]

A publicly distributed picture from the Aleppo Media Centre shows rebel fighters evading government troops. But can they be counted on to fight Al-Qaeda, asks Otrakji [AMC via AP]

By spring 2013, however, the previously crippling and costly assumption that the opposition would win had been finally retired.

In the past few months, Geneva’s mediators started to seek a more balanced mix of Syrian participants. This opening – in addition to the unprecedented dynamism and sense of urgency among the Swiss and international organizers – brings new hope that conflict resolution is a real possibility.

If you happened to be part of the scene in Geneva recently you probably heard at some point a Swiss foreign ministry official saying, “This is an exceptionally complex crisis, but we cannot afford to fail”.

Now that invitations have been issued for the January 22 Geneva conference, I would like to share ten ideas and conclusions that might help mediators avoid dead ends and perhaps find shortcuts that might save Syria and its people unnecessary pain and suffering.

None of the Islamist rebel groups is a partner in fighting Al-Qaeda.

Two years were wasted as the West continued to believe in some imaginary group of secular, moderate, reliable and freedom-seeking rebels (aka the FSA or Free Syrian Army).

Today, Saudi Arabia and its Syrian opposition allies are trying to promote two new variants that can replace the now expired FSA label.

But the latest rebel group brands are still not convincing as secular moderates.

The Saudi-financed Salafist “Islamic Front” leaders openly and proudly express their intentions to destroy Shias and Alawites; the FSA’s “moderate” replacement, The Syrian Revolutionary Front, recently called on ISIS (Al-Qaeda) fighters to join them in fighting “the Alawites”.

Finally, if any rebels do manage to win against Al-Qaeda affiliates, they will become more cocky and more convinced that God is on their side and that they don’t need to work with, or answer to, anyone else. Islamist rebels (or any armed religious ideologues) should never be empowered.

Afghanistan’s mujahideen experience must not be forgotten.

Try to seek fresh faces from the neutral center, particularly those who have sufficient integrity, maturity, experience, and moderation.

One of the main reasons progress has been illusive so far is that the vast majority of Syrians active during the crisis were to a large extent uncreative, uncaring, and unskilled.

The regime only trusts Syrians whose loyalty is paramount.The West and Arab Gulf countries support Syrian opposition characters they can easily manipulate.

But there are numerous Syrians that can be counted on when the international community is ready to focus on constructive solutions.

Drop divisive labels, symbols, and moral ground deltas between the two camps.

The two sides, and their backers, must commit to gradually abandoning the propagandist use of general labels such as “opposition”, “terrorists”, “shabeeha (government supporters-cum-militia)”, and “traitors”.

These labels are continuously destroying bridges between the two polarized blocks in Syria and ultimately justifying the use of violence against those on the other side of the divide.

When regime toppling was the objective, all the Syrian state’s symbols were targeted, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.

The country has now three flags, a president that is loved or hated, and an army that opponents call “Assad’s forces” but the rest of the country considers their last hope to maintain unity and peace in the future.

Even the most popular artists that Syrians used to consider national symbols, such as comedian Doreid Lahham and singing icon Fairouz, are now despised and boycotted by the opposition camp. If all agree that Syria should not be divided, the state’s symbols must be restored.

The regime does not yet seem to understand what real reforms or progress imply in practice.

Previous reforms such as the mediocre new constitution, recent old-style parliamentary elections, the unmonitored referendum, and the again-bland new government, did not impress many Syrians or non-Syrians who are genuinely seeking nothing but a better future for the country.

Russia and Iran must help in pressuring the regime to accept to maintain control on foreign policy and national security matters, while giving up power to a government that is formed by a coalition of parties that manage to win a majority of monitored and free parliamentary elections.

The regime has already accepted to sign a modified constitution.

Settling the crisis in Syria requires serious re-balancing of regional dynamics.

There is no substitute to accelerated full engagement with Iran to discuss its influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia must be reassured that Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will not be threats to the Sunni Arab world. Hezbollah must integrate with Lebanon’s army.

In return, Israel must give up control of Lebanon’s occupied lands. Lebanon’s current political system that marginalizes the Shia is due for a serious upgrade.

Convince both sides total victory is not as likely or as affordable.

Unrealistic expectations translate into intransigence.

All sides realize that long painful negotiations will surely lead to a series of compromises that fail to excite when compared to their preferences for victory celebrations and full control of Syria.

The regime and opposition both must understand, and promptly promote the belief that “justice” can only be achieved through South African style truth and reconciliation process.

If everyone with “blood on their hands” is to be offered a fair trial, tens of thousands of judges and courtrooms are required and thousands will need to be executed or thrown in jail for life. Forgiveness must replace revenge seeking.

One considerable obstacle that could arise is the Syrian state’s total rejection of opening the door to religious and ethnic parties.

Ideally, religion and ethnicity should not be permitted to mix with politics in Syria.

However, consider a Syrian Lebanese confederation that allows, at least initially, each country to maintain its own local government and culture.

Why? The new mixed demographics will assuage Sunni and Christian Lebanese concerns about Shia (Hezbollah) power if they reformed their current dysfunctional sectarian political system.

It will also reassure Syrian religious and ethnic minorities that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood will not succeed in winning elections, when Lebanon’s population (and its various minorities) is part of the new combined, Syrian Lebanese, population.

Fighting armed fanatics (or “terrorists”) will be the sole responsibility of the Syrian army in partnership with Iraq’s army and through considerable support from Iran.

The Syrian army must be supported with technology that helps minimize civilian losses. It is currently killing many civilians as it fights rebel extremists in every city they manage to enter and control.

The Syrian army should also be asked to appoint a spokesman who will engage in two-way communication with the Syrian people on a weekly basis (through press conferences) to help avoid misunderstandings about its role and to seek feedback that helps realizing where it is making grave mistakes.

Both Iran and Iraq need to shed some more of their Shia religious idiosyncrasies that dominate their political and military systems, which their Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors, as well as many Arab Sunnis, are allergic to.

Ideally, Egyptian and Jordanian (relatively secular, Sunni) armies should also join in fighting Al-Qaeda to avoid potential popular perception that this is a Shia-Sunni fight in which the West is siding with the Shia axis.

Massive corruption is expected with the anticipated reconstruction phase.

Both the Syrian government and regional and international actors should present their plans to control or minimize corruption on both sides (donors and Syrian).

Failure to proactively design corruption-minimizing measures, accountability and oversight will translate into theft of a large portion of the badly needed funds.

The Syrian government is well known for its corruption and many of those working with “humanitarian” NGOs (established and new) in Syria’s “liberated areas” tell stories of immense corruption that is directing aid funds for personal use or robbing urgently needed food and medical supplies.

Small successes?

Various leaked reports indicate that a number of small successes might be announced at the end of the Geneva II Summit; these could include a limited ceasefire in Aleppo and an exchange of prisoners. On the other hand, serious disagreements among various invitees are quite evident.

Syrian internal opposition figures and hardline external opposition parties decided to boycott the conference earlier this week. Others were not invited.

A last-minute hardline statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry committed him, and perhaps committed his country, to a confrontational reading of the Geneva I understanding where President Assad is forbidden from playing any future role.

Nevertheless, the two-day Geneva II Summit will be a useful public announcement of the good news that there is now less confrontation and more cooperation among the various adversaries of the Syrian crisis.

The faster they learn, and the more they cooperate to find creative solutions, the less Syrians will die and the less costly it will be to rebuild the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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