Syria talks doomed before they start?

Most disastrous consequence of infighting is that, for Syrians, opposition is a tragic caricature that appears entirely incapable of governing.

Preliminary meeting on Syria crisis at European headquarters of United Nations in Geneva

2016/01/29 Issue: 41 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Despite hundreds of thousands dead and millions made refugees, peace in Syria has never looked less likely. The latest push to get the war­lords and would-be statesmen around the table will be an all-Syrian conference in Geneva. So far, that endeavour looks dead before it has started.

A chief reason peace talks and ceasefires have failed in Syria is that the regime in Damascus does not really want to stop the killing. It revels — excels — in chaos. Another tragic facet of the uprising is how Syria’s opposition — both political and military — has failed.

Anti-government protests that swept Syria in March 2011 offered long-suffering political opposition figures, men and women who, at the time, were respected, an opportunity to present 22 million Syrians with an alternative form of governance.

Then, the devastating war that followed should have proved further motivation for the political opposition to work together to defeat Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the death toll soared while, in hotels in Istanbul and Amman, the opposition fiddled.

The reason Syria’s political opposition failed is not difficult to discern: men who have never handled power before are fighting for that same power but among themselves, not against the Assad regime they collectively hate. The most disastrous consequence of the infighting is that, for Syrians, the opposition is a tragic caricature that appears entirely incapable of governing.

By way of threat, UN representatives responsible for organising negotiations say they won’t send invitations until the opposition reaches an agreement on who exactly should attend. “At this stage the UN will proceed with issuing invitations when the countries spearheading the ISSG (International Syria Support Group) process come to an understanding on who among the opposition should be invited,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.

For long-time Syrian opposition figure George Sabra there is no readiness for talks. “There are still towns under siege. There are still Russian attacks on villages, schools and hospitals,” he told Reuters.

Still, if there is a silver lining it is that with Moscow in pole position and not Damascus, the latter may be forced to accept provisions it would not normally agree to. Over the decades Damascus has agreed to various “agreements” (the 2011 Arab League and 2012 UN observer missions, for example) only to later implicitly or otherwise destroy any and all conditions for peace. The allowing of aid into besieged areas by both the regime and opposition forces has slightly eased tensions following Russia’s bombing of schools in rebel-held areas.

Furthermore, the past several years have shown US Secretary of State John Kerry to be a coy negotiator by reaching landmark deals with Iran and on climate change as well as securing the resignation of Iraq’s divisive and sectarian prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were to meet in advance of the Syria talks to hash out a system of pressuring their respective sides to sit down at the same table.

Yet not even Kerry can convince the assemblage of rebel groups, opposition figures and the Assad regime to agree to a peace that exists on paper alone.

It is well known that the Assad regime was ruthless; its track record over 40 years is plain to see for anyone who cares to look.

However, the revolution offered a tremendous opportunity for the political opposition and sadly, five years later, there is no sense they care any more about their country than the despots in Damascus.

Meanwhile, in the depths of winter, as many refugees are making the deadly sea crossing from Turkey to Greece as there were last June. Millions of Syrians are voting with their feet; clearly none trust Assad or the opposition.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor

Subscription & Advertising:

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved