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Musa A Keilani: Talks a serious concern
May 15, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The US effort for a Russia-backed process to work out a negotiated settlement to Syria’s 26-month civil conflict has suffered a serious setback with rebels reiterating their opposition to talks.

Najib Ghadbian, a representative of one of the rebel factions, insisted that “it seems like there’s really nothing new” in the initiative. He said the rebel forces stand by their position that no talks could ever include Syrian President Bashar Al Assad or anyone else “with blood on their hands.”

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) issued a similar statement, saying it would “welcome” talks, but only after the unilateral ouster of Assad and the resignation of the entire government.

Secretary of State John Kerry says that the US-Russian plan will focus on the Geneva initiative, which called for a transitional government but did not mention what would happen to Assad. The deal was reached under UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan before handing over to Lakhder Brahimi the whole crisis, still, the rebels have rejected the whole idea. The United States and Russia are seeking to convene an international conference on ending Syria’s brutal civil war — possibly by the end of May.

The bid to revive the Geneva deal, unveiled in Moscow by Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, reflected regional and international fears that worsening bloodshed, living conditions and waves of refugees are driving Syria to disintegration and threatening to plunge the region into sectarian mayhem.

“The alternative (to peace talks) is that there is even more violence,” Kerry told reporters after his five-hour meeting with Lavrov on Tuesday. “The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over into chaos.

“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow,” he added. “The alternative is that there may be even a break-up of Syria.”

Lavrov said: “We undertake an obligation to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.”

The UN said last week that the number of internally displaced people inside Syria had more than doubled to 4.25 million over the past two months, and two days after Israel stepped up its involvement with airstrikes on Iranian missiles heading to Hizbollah from military depots in Damascus. Tensions also have soared over unproven allegations that chemical weapons have been used.

Russia is the Assad regime’s main foreign political and military supporter. The US has been struggling to build a viable political opposition out of ideologically disparate sectarian groups even as hardliners allied with Al Qaeda have emerged as the most effective rebel force.

The Obama administration is providing non-lethal aid to rebel groups while backing arms supplies to the insurgents from its allies in Turkey and other countries.

In sum, it is highly uncertain that an international conference will be held grouping the regime, which is dominated by Assad’s minority Alawites, and opposition groups that overwhelmingly comprise Syria’s long-oppressed majority Sunnis and included hundreds of foreign fighters allied with Al Qaeda.

The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who succeeded Annan, has welcomed the US-Russia commitment to work together to end the conflict.

He said it was “the first hopeful news” on Syria for a long time, but cautioned that it was “only a first step.”

Brahimi also stressed that the US-Russian accord meant that the UN Security Council would now be able to function again.

The council has so far failed to act on the Syrian crisis because of differences among its five permanent members, with Russia and China blocking any action or resolutions against the Syrian regime, even economic sanctions.

Before the Moscow announcement, Brahimi himself was expected to offer his resignation as the special envoy for Syria, but that now seems no longer to be the case, observers say.

Is there a real shift in Moscow’s position? Russia has said that there should be no preconditions to peace talks, but Lavrov indicated last week that Moscow would not insist that Assad be part of a transitional government.

“I would like to emphasise that we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons. We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people,” he said.

But that has always been the declared Russian stand.

It is difficult to understand how Assad hopes to continue his rule of Syria after having unleashed brutal military force against his own people. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them civilians.

US President Barack Obama has reiterated that Assad would have to step down before a meaningful peace process could begin.

The United States has “a moral obligation and a national security interest” to ensure “that we’ve got a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people, and is not creating chaos for its neighbours. And that’s why for the last two years we have been active in trying to ensure that Bashar Assad exits from the stage, and that we can begin a political transition process,” said Obama.

This approach by the American administration should be commended and supported by all Arabs in this region, but practical ideas to implement it should be found by all genuine friends of Syria.

A coalition Syrian government with a troika formula could be reached where Sunnis, Kurds, Druze, Christians and anti-Bashar Alawites can all contribute to alleviate the sufferings and stop the carnage in Syria.

The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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