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Syria still faces an uncertain future

By Liu Yueqin | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-25 06:59

G8 leaders agreed a joint statement on Syria after lengthy discussions at the end of their June 17-18 summit, which showed they were united, at least on surface, in seeking a negotiated and peaceful end to the conflict through a transitional government. But with some fundamental differences unresolved, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian government and the opposition will agree to negotiations in the near future.

In May, Russia and the United States agreed to convene an international conference on Syria in mid-June to seek a political resolution to the conflict through a comprehensive agreement between the government and the opposition for the implementation of the Geneva communiqu of June 30, 2012.

The expected meeting, however, could not be convened for several reasons.

First, the US and Russia differ on the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The conference aimed at ending the two-year Syrian conflict was jointly proposed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Although the two major powers agree on reviving political and diplomatic options to resolve the Syrian crisis, they remain sharply divided over Assad's role. Russia says the Syrian people - not the outside world - should decide Assad's future, but the US insists that he should step down and have no role to play in a transitional government.

The US government is determined to oust Assad and install a pro-US Syrian government that would serve Washington's strategic interests and deprive Iran of a heavyweight ally in the Middle East, which could eventually help resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. Russia, on the other hand, is backing Assad to preserve its strategic interests in Syria. And with the European Union supporting the opposition groups to facilitate the overthrow of Assad, the chances of a political settlement to the Syrian crisis, at least in the short term, looks bleak.

Second, the Syrian opposition groups seem over-confident of changing the landscape of Syria, because peaceful resolution to the crisis cannot be achieved without the participation of the government. The Syrian government as well as the opposition groups were invited to the proposed international conference. But while the government, in principle, agreed to attend the conference, the opposition repeatedly said Assad's resignation was a necessary precondition to any political solution to the crisis.

On June 5, delegates from the United Nations, the US and Russia held a meeting but failed to agree on the list of participants, especially on representatives of the Syrian opposition. Besides, Russia wants to include Iran and Saudi Arabia in the negotiations, while the Syrian opposition and most Western countries are against Teheran's presence in any talks.

A lot still has to be done to convene an international conference, and as things stand it will not be possible to hold one this month, said Lakhdar Brahimi, joint special representative of the UN and Arab League for Syria, following talks with senior US, Russian and UN officials.

Last month, the United Kingdom and France took the lead in lifting an EU arms embargo on Syria, which means that EU member states can now supply weapons to the Syrian opposition groups.

The EU's move could intensify the Syrian conflict and undermine the peace process, because encouraged by prospect of receiving more arms from the European bloc the opposition will be more reluctant to attend any peace talks.

The 2012 Geneva communiqu calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body, with full executive powers, made up of members of the Syrian government and the opposition and other groups as part of agreed principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led political transition. But the US and the EU don't seem prepared to honor this.

Third, the Syrian government and the opposition are not likely to reach a compromise. On May 18, Assad reiterated that he had no intention of stepping down. "Any decision about reforms in Syria will come from Syria and neither the US nor any other state can intervene", he said. In other words, the Syrian government is not prepared to make any compromise. The opposition, too, is not ready for negotiations because the presence of myriad groups still makes it a divided lot. Moreover, the opposition has few bargaining chips, owing to its lack of a real victory in the conflict, to force Assad to quit. On top of that, Assad's forces have recently made some important gains by regaining some of the areas occupied by the opposition.

The international community, therefore, cannot expect much from talks. The efforts made by the US and Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis politically show the former is reluctant to resort to military means, which is a positive sign. The problem is that the US and Russia alone cannot resolve the crisis and the international community can do very little to restore permanent peace in Syria.

US President Barack Obama apparently is against engaging in another war. On June 13, the US claimed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against the opposition forces and thus crossed Washington's "red line", and said that it would provide the opposition with weapons. But Washington is still reluctant to take military action against Syria.

Too many obstacles have to be overcome to organize an international conference on Syria, especially because the two parties at war, as well as the two great powers acting as mediators are unwilling to compromise. All this does not abode well for the Syrian people who have been undergoing untold sufferings for the past more than two years.

The author is a researcher at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 06/25/2013 page9)

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