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#Geneva II beware the rhetoric

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ s Hijaz Railway Station with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

Now that all the predictable grandstanding for the benefit of the world’s and Syria’s own internal state-controlled media is over, and now that we have been subjected to the larger than life Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem’s rants about the future fate of the presidency and the current ruling regime being ‘red-lines’, the tone of the Syrian regime’s ‘delegation-speak’ is shifting gradually. Yesterday Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Al-Ja’afari said, when pressed in Geneva to talk about these matters by the BBC’s Lina Sinjab (their former Damascus correspondent), that it was ‘too early’ to talk about such things. If it is too early now, then the clear implication is that ‘such things’ may come onto the agenda later. For the time being the talks are beginning slowly, with hiccups, dealing with subjects that both sides may be able to agree on, namely, localised ceasefires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner exchanges.

Also this morning, British Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking in London on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, was extremely bold and even outspoken, in the way he referred to the Syrian regime and to President Bashar Al-Assad. Hague always chooses every word with great care, so he made the British government’s position very clear when he declared it ‘inconceivable’ that a future Syrian transitional government could be led by the same person who had been responsible for blockading aid and thereby starving  his own people.

Yet, for all Bashar Al-Assad’s stupid mistakes in the early mishandling of peaceful demonstrations in Dera’a and elsewhere, he has been nothing if not clever in how he has handled matters more recently. From the start he announced to the world he was fighting ‘terrorist gangs’ and ‘sectarianism’. Under the guise of an amnesty he then slyly released around 1,000 jihadi and Al-Qa’ida fighters from his own jails, a fact which has now been corroborated by many sources including defectors. Bashar knew exactly what he was doing, that these fighters would go on to spearhead and swell  Islamist groups. In other words he set out to make his own prediction come true. As a result the regime can present itself at Geneva II as a government that is fighting foreign terrorism, a fact reflected in the composition of its delegation – all foreign affairs people. It is worth noting an irony here, incidentally, that many of the released jihadis had been languishing in regime jails since they were arrested to please America, but before that the regime had itself sponsored them to cross over into Iraq to fight the Americans following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. It is a move that would have made Bashar’s wily father Hafez proud.

Last September’s Chemical Weapons deal has also worked in the regime’s favour, enabling it to present itself as a responsible partner, cooperating with the UN and the West, struggling valiantly to get the CW out of the country through rebel-held territory. Everyone forgot that just months earlier the regime was denying it even possessed CW. No matter, it is the image of cooperation that has stuck with the world’s media.

Now with the humanitarian agreements on Homs, and maybe elsewhere in coming days, the regime will once again be able to portray itself as ‘the responsible partner of the West’. UN aid agencies and Red Cross workers are only permitted under international law to work with the ‘recognised government’ of a country, so the Syrian regime will relish the attention and take all the credit, playing it for all it is worth. With the massive sum, rumoured to be over $50 million, that they have allocated for media ‘coverage’ of Geneva II, the world needs to have its eyes wide open and not allow Assad to hijack public opinion. If anyone is in danger of believing the regime’s self-publicist and conciliatory rhetoric, they should remember the report released just ahead of Geneva II by three highly respected war crimes prosecutors, detailing the systematic ‘industrial-scale killing’ of 11,000 detainees in his prisons – the ones whom it served no purpose to release.







PR battle intensifies as Geneva II dates approaches

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

The BBC’s Chief International correspondent Lyse Doucet has posted a heart-rending news item this morning about Syria’s battle for bread:


Reporting from a government bakery in Damascus the footage shows queues of men (food shopping is traditionally the domain of men, not women across the Arab world) waiting to be issued with their packs of  round flat thin bread, far thinner than what is sold in the UK as pitta bread. The price, because this is heavily subsidised by the government, is the same as it has been for 20 years, 2 Syrian pounds per piece (1p in the current exchange rate,  2.5p in the exchange rate of before the revolution). In private bakeries, she is told, the price is ten times higher, and in war-torn parts of the country, there is no bread at all.

The sub-text here, though of course Lyse Doucet is far too professional to say so because she has been allowed into Damascus on a government-sponsored visa, is that in rebel-held areas there is no bread because the rebels cannot organise the production and because distribution networks have been disrupted. Cereal production is down by 40% and what wheat there is is mainly controlled and distributed by the government. She phrases her words very carefully to avoid any suggestion of attributing blame to either side.

Next the footage moves to a distribution centre where UN aid,  food parcels and blankets are being handed out to women and families queuing in the freezing cold. The snow has melted in central Damascus but the temperature range is still 1-7 degrees Celsius, quite normal for the winter months as Damascus lies at an altitude of 700m. She interviews a lady  who assures her that all aid channeled in via the UN agencies goes direct to the Syrian people who need it – a reassuring message to all who have generously donated to the UN Syria appeals.

Again the sub-text  is complex. UN aid has to proceed through government-approved channels and the process is tightly controlled. By definition rebel-held areas will not receive any such food parcels or blankets. Such areas  have to rely instead on aid channeled in ‘illegally’ across the borders, raised by Syrian charities funded by individuals. The British surgeon David Nott, who worked for 6 weeks in and around Aleppo conducting operations on victims of aerial bombardments and sniper attacks, and teaching Syrian doctors how to conduct them in his absence, was escorted into the country by exactly such a charity, Syria Relief http://www.syriarelief.org.uk/syriarelief/.

The Syrian government agenda here is clear, in allowing a senior BBC reporter into Damascus now, in the run-up to Christmas, and more significantly, in the run-up to 22 January, the date just 5 weeks away set for the crucial conference dubbed ‘Geneva II’, aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis.  It wants to present its caring face to the world, to the international community who will be watching it at Geneva II. This government has learnt well the lessons taught it by the US and British PR firms it used to employ before the revolution to project its softer image across the world. Mindful of how this image has been damaged by the horrors of the country’s raging civil war, it is working hard on re-building it. As the date for Geneva II approaches, the government will almost certainly be intensifying its efforts to present itself as the only force in the country that can save Syria. And the biggest tragedy of all is that thanks to the vaccum left by western inertia, now increasingly filled by extremist Islamists funded by wealthy Gulf individuals, this assertion has probably become true.

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Geneva II needs a genius, to ensure all parties can claim victory

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

For a concrete date of 22 January 2014 to have been fixed for the Syria Geneva II talks at the UN, there must have been concrete developments behind the scenes. The timing, straight after the announcement of the US-Iran deal over nuclear weapons, suggests that a further connected deal with Iran must have been arrived at, requiring its involvement and cooperation over finding an end to the war in Syria. Then, barely a day later, came the joint announcement by Iran and Turkey’s foreign ministers, both of whom support opposite sides in Syria’s war, calling for a ceasefire before Geneva II. It is all too much of a coincidence.

The key players who can influence events at Geneva II are starting to line up. America and Russia are singing from the same hymn sheet, as are Iran and Turkey. All have reached the point where they can see military victory is not possible for any one faction, and that the rise of Islamist extremism is only going to get worse.

What is needed now is a genius who can devise a peace formula whereby all parties, notably the Assad regime and the main groupings opposing him, can claim victory and thereby save face. This will be an essential requirement – that no one is blamed and that everyone gains something from the deal.

With eight full weeks to prepare, this should be possible, especially given the amount of international pressure America, Russia, Turkey and Iran can bring to bear. Saudi Arabia and Qatar will need to be placated and given something too, so that they too can claim victory and save face.

Pray God the geniuses are hard at work devising such formulas, so that 22 January can be the beginning of transfer of power away from the Assad regime before he concocts his re-election in May 2014. The alternative will be years of suffering and destruction, with thousands more deaths, injuries and refugees – a terrible prolonging of Syria’s nightmare.

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