The conference of 30 foreign ministers opening Wednesday, Jan. 22, in the Swiss town of Montreux got off to a shaky start and an agenda stripped of sensitive political issues. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Bashar Assad’s presidency was a ”red line” and information minister Omran al-Zoubi denied there was any civil war in Syria at all, only “a fight between government and terrorists.”
Their words came on the heels of the fiasco of UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran to attend the conference, which he was forced by Washington to rescind over Tehran’s refusal to subscribe to the Geneva 1 Communique, which called for its ally Assad’s ultimate removal as president.
So, although it was originally billed as the first meeting of the Syrian government and opposition to discuss a transitional government for leading Syria out of a brutal civil war, the political goal receded before the foreign ministers even took their seats.
And meanwhile, debkafile reports, an Iranian delegation secretly arrived in Montreux Tuesday night after all, on the understanding that it would not take part in the conference discussions and would put up at a hotel outside the town. It was obvious to all the participants that although officially absent, the Iranian presence loomed very large over any possible decision-making. This accorded with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments earlier this month that Iran’s admission to the “sidelines of the conference” was admissible if its input was positive.
Against this formidable lineup, the Syrian opposition is seriously under-represented by the divided Syrian National Coalition which is backed by the West but cannot claim to speak for the rebel movement.
In the ten days to two weeks of the conference, substantial political issues will be pitfalls better avoided to save the conference from breaking up amid irreconcilable differences.
After Moallem declared, “Nobody can touch the Assad presidency!” there is not much point in discussing the formation of a representative transitional government in Damascus to replace the Assad regime, or the withdrawal of foreign forces fighting in the country, such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hizballah.
The conference will limit itself to discussing initial arrangements for opening up a limited number of corridors for bringing essential aid to the populations in rebel-held areas under Syrian army siege. Enabling this requires local ceasefires between the warring sides.
These limited objectives were approved by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin when they talked by phone Tuesday night.
United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he hoped the first day of talks at Montreux's Palace Hotel can lead to detailed discussions down the lake in Geneva later that would at least bring some relief to suffering Syrian civilians and possibly prisoner exchanges.
The Americans and Russians are counting on the Assad regime and Iran to undersign these limited objectives. Geneva 2 can then be be presented to the Middle East and world at large as the first breakthrough towards the gradual winding down of the Syrian war.
In the view of debkafile’s analysts, this winding down could take years. Therefore, the discussions initiated at Montreux will be drawn out for as long as Washington, Moscow and Tehran see some progress however meager and the Syrian ruler is willing to cooperate.
Assad and his spokesmen scorned to respond to the publication of images presented Monday by British investigators attesting to the alleged murder and torture of Syrian detainees “on an industrial scale,” coupled with a demand to put the Syrian president on trial for war crimes in The Hague.
He perceived these incriminating images as designed to overshadow and negate his appearance in Geneva as victor in the current stage of the Syria war and reduce the leverage of his backers, Russia and Iran, by smearing them by association as abettors of a war criminal.
Assad finds every reason for confidence that the outcome of the second Geneva conference on the Syrian conflict will overlay Geneva 1 eighteen months ago which required his removal. He now sees himself as the first ruler to beat down the Arab Revolt which began sweeping the region three years ago and strong enough for US and European intelligence agencies to send emissaries to Damascus last week to discuss joint action against Al Qaeda. So long as Moscow and Iran are behind him, no party hoping to achieve the first steps for ending the conflict can afford to avoid engaging him directly. Blackening him woin't work.