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Vienna conference on Syria. EADaily’s Comment

Quite expectedly, the second round of the Vienna talks on Syria has given no results: the Normandy Four has failed to come to a consensus on the so-called transition period in Syria. Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have enlarged the team of players but they have failed to push the process any further. As a result, the sides have decided to continue multilateral talks and to convoke a ministerial summit in the next two weeks.

One of the achievements of the talks was the involvement of Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. The doors are open for the other key Middle East players as well, first of all, for the Gulf monarchies.

The first meeting in the new format took place on Oct 23. The second round was held just a week later, which proved that the parties were committed to solve the problem. The key goal of the talks is to give a start to a transition period in the war-ridden Syria.

Before the meeting most of the western mass media said that in Vienna the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would insist on immediate resignation of Bashar al-Assad unlike Russia and Iran, who want the Syrian president to stay in power.

But this is not the core of the problem. Much here depends on external factors. The first international conference on Syria was held on June 30 2012 in the framework of the action group formed by the then UN special representative for Syria Kofi Annan. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan were not present at the meeting. The result was a communiqué saying that the first step to settle the conflict in Syria was to form a transition authority.

Geneva 1 stipulated a dialogue between the transitional government and the opposition. In fact, the external players offered just a framework for peace. Later they saw that the gap between the conflicting parties was huge and no dialogue was possible. So, they decided to apply more realistic methods.

In Jan 2013, the newly appointed UN special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi suggested amending the Geneva Communiqué of June 30 2012. He said that the agreements reached during the first Geneva conference were not sufficient and urged the UN Security Council to take action. On May 7 2013, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested organizing a new conference. The conference was held on Jan 22 2014 and was called Geneva 2.

Its goal was to ensure peace and humanitarian assistance. The next decision was to form four task forces involving Syrian leaders and oppositionists. But that was all Geneva 2 was able to do.

What is going on now can hardly be called Geneva 3. This is rather a return to the starting point. No matter how they will call it – Vienna 1 or otherwise – what really matters is the understanding of all the parties involved that the internal Syrian resources for settling the conflict are exhausted. In other words, the Syrians have realized that they will not be able to solve this problem without external help.

It seems that that this understanding is the only thing the four – which may one day turn into a five (if Iran joins the process) – are unanimous about. There is no unanimity regarding all the other questions. It will just suffice to mention the latent struggle between the United States and Turkey over Syrian Kurds: the Americans regard them as allies and are actively arming them, while the Turks are worried about their autonomy plans and are threatening to bombard them.

Washington, Ankara and Riyadh are trying to convince everybody that they have a consolidated position on Syria. They in Ankara put it this way: the three capitals are unanimous that during the six-month transition period in Syria al-Assad should be just a symbolic leader and that at the end of the period he will have to resign.

Before the start of the talks the Americans and their western and Middle East partners met in Paris and agreed not to claim al-Assad’s resignation as the starting point of the transition period. What they need is a guarantee that the elected president of Syria will leave his office at some point of the period.

This is a serious shift in the United States’ position. It means that top priority now is to destroy the terrorist groups acting in Syria as only this can make possible the other stages of the process: internal Syrian dialogue, united transitional government, new constitution and new elections.

Before Oct 30, many people doubted that Iran would support the process, particularly, the idea suggesting involving Syrian oppositionists in the transitional authority. Until recently the Iranians saw no sense for al-Assad to resign as he was elected just a year before. But later they showed flexibility and pragmatism and said that they did not “insist on keeping al-Assad in power for ever.” These are the words of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, involved in the last round of the Vienna talks.

Thus, there is room for a compromise as the priority is fight with terrorism. What the parties have to do now is to try to put some meat on this process – something they failed to do after Geneva 1.

Until the war is over, it will be hard to form any transitional authority in Syria. The very start of the transition talks needs a consensus among the Syrians that their key enemy is ISIL and other terrorists acting in their country. For this purpose, they need to know who is a real oppositionist and can be a negotiator and who is a terrorist and must be destroyed.

Russia came to the Middle East just in time to prevent the United States from applying the Iraqi or Lebanese scenarios in Syria.

So, we have a rhetorical question: would there be the Vienna process without Russia’s involvement? The Vienna conference took place just a month after the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria. And now the parties are planning to invite the Syrian leaders and some of the oppositionists. The process is gathering pace.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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Published on November 1st, 2015 01:01 PM
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