by Dr Jasmine Gani
Walid Muallem, Syrian government speaks at the Geneva Conference on Syria. 22 January 2014. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré
What has been achieved and what can be learnt from the Geneva II talks so far? After the ill-tempered grandstanding at Montreux on Wednesday, modest headway seems to have been made between the regime and opposition delegations over the weekend via the mediation of UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
First the Syrian government agreed that women and children in the besieged city of old Homs are welcome to leave immediately, while civilian men will be allowed to do so once a list of their names have been handed over to the regime. On a basic level this does represent a degree of progress. However, as should be expected, even these basic concessions present several complications.
Civilians will rightly be wary of any separation of their families. Apart from the difficulties of reuniting families fleeing from the conflict, there is also the concern that remaining men might be labelled as ‘terrorists’, and conveniently isolated in the face of a government attack. Fears of a repeat of Srebrenica have been at the forefront of opposition scepticism. Moreover the requirement of a list of names, which would delay a full evacuation of the city, has similarly raised concerns; the obvious reason is verification that all of those leaving are Syrian civilian nationals – not the foreign fighters nor domestic ‘terrorists’ alleged by the government to be operating in the city. The latter would be harder to disprove and open to arbitrary decision; given that Homs was one of the earliest cities to rise up in protest against the regime, a good many are likely to fall into this category. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), fears that this information would then be used to carry out mass detentions.
The second development over the weekend was regarding the issue of humanitarian access. Brahimi confirmed that the UN team based in Syria has already established communication with the governor of Homs to facilitate emergency humanitarian aid to the city, with a decision expected today. This would of course necessitate a localised cease-fire. Since all such previous attempts have failed, this would indeed be a ground-breaking move. Moreover, a three-month food blockade, and a recent attack on Homs by government forces in which 19 people were killed, makes a ceasefire especially urgent.
It also means the onus for this concession appears to fall on the regime, despite Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s claims that it was opposition forces that carried out the attack and were preventing evacuations. The issuing of completely conflicting narratives from both sides will be a recurring theme of the Geneva talks, in which allegations, deflection of culpability, and the use of press conferences as opportunities for propaganda obscures discussion of real issues. However, it is likely such rhetoric is being reserved for the press and public, while we can gather from Brahimi’s statements that the discussions behind closed doors are of greater substance.
Nevertheless it holds true that the opposition must also play a role in any potential ceasefire in Homs. One of the challenges the political opposition faces – and one which may significantly affect its leverage at Geneva – is that it is not a coherent voice for the rebel military factions on the ground. Many battalions, particularly in the north, are not under the command of the SNC’s military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – getting the disparate rebel groups to accept any military dictate, let alone a ceasefire, issued from exiled diplomats in Geneva is unlikely to be straightforward. However, if there is a city where this is more likely to succeed it is Homs, where loyalty to the FSA is greater and there has been better coordination between the political and military wings of the SNC.
A third area of negotiation has been the release of detainees held by the regime, and those kidnapped by rebel armed forces that are affiliated with or in contact with the political opposition. Here, the clash of narratives described above is likely to be more problematic. It is one thing for the regime to implement a ceasefire whilst claiming it has sought to do this all along; it is much harder for it to release prisoners when it openly refutes the 50,000 figure provided by the opposition, arguing that up to 70 per cent of the names are fabricated. On the other hand, the weakness of the SNC’s authority over the types of rebel groups engaged in kidnappings also poses an obstacle to their fulfilment of this condition.