Amman, JORDAN– Wednesday, Jordan will host the latest Friends of Syria meeting that will gather mainly international supporters of those who oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Curiously, the meeting — now one of more than a half dozen over the past year — is expected to have no participation from the Syrian opposition itself. ”I have information that the Syrian opposition will not send representatives to take part in the meeting,” Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad al-Momani recently told reporters, without elaborating.
The main opposition Syrian National Coalition said it will instead hold three days of talks in Istanbul starting the following day, May 23, to discuss a U.S.- Russian proposal for an international conference on a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
At the group’s last meeting in Istanbul on April 20, the opposition expressed hope that Western countries would supply rebels battling regime troops with arms. Instead, they got more offers of non-lethal, humanitarian aid, including $250 million from the U.S.
A former president of the opposition Syrian National Council, Abdelbaset Sieda, said previous Friends of Syria meetings did not produce what the opposition was looking for, i.e., “real support, especially in terms of the means of protection for the Syrian people against continuous killings.”
Amman gathering to prepare for Geneva II
Amman will see foreign ministers gather, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and counterparts from Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The aim is to prepare for a so-called “peace conference” in Geneva in June, which Syria is expected to attend.
The U.S. and Russia, one of Assad’s strongest backers, are reviving the idea of a negotiated settlement to the bloody two-year civil war in Syria that has killed 70,000 people and displaced 4 million inside the country and another 1.4 million in neighboring lands, according to the U.N. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain claims that at least 94,000 have been killed.
But will the opposition and the regime both come on board for Geneva II talks? And just how much accord has Kerry struck with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on key issues?
Russia has sent sophisticated anti-ship missiles to Syria, the New York Times recently reported, citing interviews with unnamed U.S. officials. They said the missiles could be used to counter any potential future foreign military intervention in Syria. Russia is one of Syria’s main arms suppliers.
Russia has also reportedly sent a dozen or more warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Syria, a build-up that US and European officials see as a new, aggressive stance meant partly to warn the West and regional powers not to intervene in Syria’s bloody conflict. Observers say the build-up is Moscow’s attempt to strengthen its hand in any talks over Syria’s future and undergird its influence in the Middle East.
The revelations come amid growing alarm that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, something President Barack Obama called a “game-changer” and “a red line” for possible intervention. BBC’s Ian Pannell has been shown evidence claiming to corroborate reports of a chemical attack in Saraqeb, southwest of Aleppo. But the U.S. has ruled out unilateral military involvement. The U.N. has repeated its call to Damascus to allow independent weapons inspectors as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the main political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, has already reiterated his group’s longstanding demand that Assad must first step down in order for such a proposed peace process, like Geneva II, to begin — a stand repeatedly rejected by Moscow.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said his government — which insists it is fighting an insurgency and foreign terrorists — wants specifics on the proposed conference before it decides whether to participate.
Assad himself downplayed the importance of the Geneva conference in a newspaper interview over the weekend. “We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria,” the Syrian president told the Argentine newspaper, Clarin, while blaming them for supporting terrorists.
He said elections, not a conference, should decide his political future. “We said from the beginning that any decisions having to do with reform in Syria or any political doing is a local Syrian decision,” he said. “Neither the U.S nor any other state is allowed to intervene in it. This issue is dealt with in Syria.”
Will the peace drive succeed?
After a recent meeting with Lavov in Sweden, Kerry said the peace drive is based on a deal that has remained a dead letter since it was first announced in Geneva in June 2012. It calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria “with full executive authority by mutual consent.” The ambiguous wording has deliberately left Assad’s future role unclear.
Kerry and Lavrov both said they expect Syria to attend the upcoming event.
Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), believes the prospects for success of the Geneva initiative are not good unless the U.S. and Russia are not only prepared to convene the event, but also to “strongarm their respective friends into attending and settling.”
Serwer said who will control Damascus was the main issue in the conflict, writing on his peacefare.net blog. And on this prime point, the U.S. and Russia disagree. Washington insists that Assad step down, while Moscow believes he can stay and maybe even run in an election.
Both sides, however, do not want Sunni Muslim extremists, such as the group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, to come to power. Serwer said they would prefer any opposition representation in a transitional government to be predominantly moderate. They also do not want to see a post-Assad massacre of Syria’s Alawites and Christians, some of whom have been mainstays of the Assad regime.
The Friends of Syria meeting comes on the heels of a UN General Assembly vote on May 15 condemning the Assad regime for its escalating use of heavy weapons.
But observers say that a decline in support for the non-binding resolution (107 votes in favor, 12 against and 59 abstentions) — compared to an August 2012 resolution condemning the Syrian government (133 votes in favor, 12 opposed and 31 abstentions) — suggests a growing unease in the international community about extremism among Syria’s rebel factions.
The Friends of Syria collective was created in response to a Russian and Chinese veto on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria. Russia and China have vetoed several Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence.
The second Friends of Syria meeting just over a year ago on April 1, 2012 saw 70 countries gathered to support the opposition and increase pressure on the Syrian government, while just about a dozen will attend the Amman gathering.
Power needed to back diplomacy?
SAIS’s Serwer has suggested that any dramatic increase in U.S. assistance to the Syrian opposition is unlikely until the Geneva conference is held, or proves once again to be a wishful thought.
Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Kerry’s diplomatic hand is “only as strong as the force gathering on Assad’s doorsteps.”
He told CNN that the Syrian leader and his backers, such as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, only understand the language of military might. He suggests that latest diplomatic moves to end the Syrian crisis will only work if they are backed by potential force.
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