Geneva II: "A Modest Beginning On Which We Can Build"
by Rene Wadlow
The United Nations-League of Arab States Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in a press conference announcing a break until 10 February 2014 of the Geneva II negotiations said that the negotiations had been “a modest beginning on which we can build.” It was expected that Geneva II on the Syrian armed conflict would be long and difficult. Geneva I had been short and relatively easy since only the Russians and the USA were speaking to each other, and both had the “Yemen model” in mind: the president of Yemen goes into a safe exile, a slightly broader transition government is formed, nothing else changes — no reforms, no greater security but life is a bit better than before.
syria_400Geneva II everyone predicted would be more difficult as Syrians would participate in the discussion — the Syrian Government and some but not all of the armed opposition factions. Geneva II started in Montreux at the opposite end of the Lake of Geneva because on the days chosen for the often postponed start, there was a trade show for expensive watches in Geneva, and the types of hotels where Foreign Ministers stay were all booked. Montreux has a good number of 1900-style hotels from the time that people spent their summers on the lake shore. Some 40 States attended the start, some because they were directly concerned, others to give encouragement. After the one-day start, some participants left for Davos — the World Economic Forum — to talk trade, and the Syrians moved to Geneva.
The official Syrian delegations met in the UN Palais des Nations but not always together — Brahimi going from one conference room to the next. Other interested parties — uninvited opposition groups, Kurds, Lebanese, met in quiet restaurants and hotel rooms. The Iranians have a large Mission to the UN. While some Iranian diplomats went with their President to Davos, some stayed to see what was going on among the Syrians. Also it has long been known that independent arms merchants live in the hills above Montreux, giving them a fine view on the lake — though the arms are kept elsewhere. If they were not able to finish their sales to Syrian groups on their stay in Montreux, the arms merchants have the resources to drive to Geneva.
What is now possible to build on the modest beginning? What role can outside governments and non-governmental conflict-resolution organizations play? The distance among Syrians and the intensity of negative feelings was symbolized by rival Syrian groups demonstrating in the square just beyond the UN property. The “Place des Nations” belongs to the city of Geneva. While one needs a police permit to demonstrate legally, the permits are normally granted. There are often groups with signs and fliers. The police watch, but usually have little to do. There are rarely groups holding conflicting views at the same time as was seen during the Syrian negotiations. The police prevented violence, but they had to do more than just watch.
Although there was no formal agreement between the Syrian Government and the armed opposition, the one topic on which there might be an agreement was on temporary access of humanitarian relief to some conflict areas and internally-displaced people camps. Such humanitarian relief is urgently needed; a large number of people have left their homes unable to take supplies with them; certain towns and parts of cities are the scene of continued fighting. No-man-lands are unclear, and there are no official “safe havens”.
In some of my contacts with the Russian Foreign Ministry concerning the possibility of their offering their good offices to the Syrian Government for relief, I received the impression that the Russians are willing to make an effort along these lines. Aid to the city of Homs — the third most populated of Syria — has been mentioned. Aid to displaced-persons camps is more difficult as different, non-cooperating groups hold different segments of the roads.
At this stage, US or more generally Western government influence is slight both with the Syrian Government and with the most hard-line of the opposition. Thus it is basically the Russians who can take the lead. However, there are US-based and Western European relief organizations, and they may be able to play a logistic role and use US and Western European food and medical supplies
There is only a short time for private discussions to reach an agreement before the 10 February public restart. If an agreement can be reached between now and 10 February so that the agreement could be announced at the start of the negotiations, it could help the more political aspects of the negotiations. In any case, humanitarian aid is needed to limit the current heavy suffering.
Thus we must use the influence we have in the next few days to push for an accord on relief supplies.
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens