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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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Chink of Light in #Syria?

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

The speed at which things can happen once there is international consensus is remarkable. UN Chemical Weapons inspectors are already in Syria just days after the UN Security Council agreed unanimously last week to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons arsenal. They are working to a strict timetable and have just till November to complete their work.

Seven out of the 19 chemical weapons sites which they will be inspecting are, according to the Syrian government (which provided the list of sites) in rebel-held or contested combat zones. Here is the possible chink of light.

Ceasefires will have to be negotiated to enable the UN inspectors to pass through these combat zones to reach these seven sites to verify them and make assessments. The wording of the new UN Resolution makes it clear that action will be taken against anyone – regime or rebels – found to be obstructing the UN inspectors’ work. Such a situation forces compliance and cooperation on all sides and may be the start of a new dynamic on the ground.

So what if consensus can be achieved now, not just on chemical weapons, but on another issue of pressing concern – the need to expel from Syria the recently-formed foreign extremist Islamist groups? Parties involved in the conflict – both inside and outside the country – are increasingly concerned about the rise and rise of such foreign-funded, foreign-composed extremist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam), which are intent on imposing their vision of an Islamic state on Syrian citizens the overwhelming majority of whom do not want this. Many feel their revolution has been hijacked by these Islamist groups. Some who began by supporting them because they were better funded and better organised than other rebels, now regret their early enthusiasm. After experiencing the reality of life under such radical groups in places like Ar-Raqqa and around Aleppo, they now want to distance themselves and return to something more moderate. 99% of Syrian citizens don’t want them, the Assad regime doesn’t want them, the moderate opposition groups don’t want them, the US, Russia, Israel and European countries don’t want them, seeing them as a greater threat to world stability than either the Syrian regime or the moderate Syrian rebels – it’s beginning to look like another consensus.

On that basis, with the political will, a ceasefire could even be agreed in time for the upcoming Eid Al-Adha on 14 October, marking the end of the pilgrimage season. Over-optimistic perhaps, given it will take time to drive out the extremist fighters even if the regime and the moderate groups were to unite to achieve it. But once there is consensus, remarkable things can happen very quickly, as we have just witnessed.

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Syria’s Ghost

Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret

Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret

Nothing symbolises the cultural diversity and complexity of Syria more than Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque. Built on Aramean then Roman foundations, it was a cathedral, then a mosque, even serving as both simultaneously for nearly a century. But the colourful mosaic of Syria is becoming a broken jigsaw. Why is that?

In a word, Iraq. The spectre of Iraq hangs over the way everyone has viewed the Syria crisis for the last two and a half years. Syria is seen through Iraq-tinted spectacles. From the start the media has wanted to see everything in terms of what went wrong in Iraq, and never more so than now.

But Syria is not Iraq. It is so different from Iraq it is hard to know where to begin in listing the differences.

The spectre of Iraq and the US/UK-led destruction of Iraq has held back any meaningful involvement in helping the Syrian opposition. In time the vacuum started to be filled by extremist groups, all too keen to get meaningfully involved. In the first year of the Syrian uprising there were no extremist groups involved at all, in the second year they grew to 5% of the opposition forces, and in the third year they have grown to 15% and rising. Abandoned by the west, Syrian rebels had little choice but to accept the help of extremist Islamist groups in fighting the omnipresent Assad regime, in power for over 40 years and very deeply dug in. What else could they do?

The spectre of Iraq has held back western public opinion from supporting Syria in its quest for a fair new Syria, a Syria where arbitrary arrest and torture, routine under Assad’s Ba’athist system, is finally abolished and political prisoners are set free.

And now the spectre of Iraq has prevented British MPs voting to support military action. Britain has abdicated and sidelined itself, tied itself in tortuous knots made up of Iraqi string.

No one, it seems, can see past the spectre of Iraq, and the media must take its share of the blame in this. The media loves a good crisis, a good war. Suddenly Syria is all over the airwaves, when it was barely getting a mention before the chemical attack. It had become too boring, too routine, averaging about 200 deaths a day, not really worth mentioning, unless of course there was a nice cannibal to report on.

If America takes military action now, it will be doing so for all the wrong reasons and the consequences are by definition unknowable. Syrians are pawns, their fate is being decided by outside players who are now finally, when it is too late, becoming involved for their own reasons, with their own agendas, not for any genuine humanitarian reasons. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ rule could have been invoked long ago if western powers had wanted. But the spectre of Iraq held them back.

According to Islamic popular tradition, Christ will descend from the Jesus Minaret of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque before the Last Judgement to fight the Antichrist. Never has Syria needed a saviour more than now.

Syria is not Iraq. But it is cruelly haunted by the ghost of Iraq.

Maybe in the future we will all be haunted by the ghost of Syria, for our failure to help its deserving people.

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: 'God is Syria's Protector'

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: ‘God is Syria’s Protector’

Hand-wringing about Syria

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the...

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the early 1970s. From left to right: Bashar, Maher, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf (the then new First Lady of Syria), Majd, Bushra, and Basil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hand-wringing about Syria comes far too late. Western powers who colluded in the invasion of Iraq were so shamed by what happened in the aftermath that in Syria they focussed exclusively on the aftermath, funding ‘civil society’ workshops and ‘citizen journalist’ training. They overlooked the small detail that the Assad regime was and is too strong to fall without outside intervention. In Iraq the West focussed only on the ‘now’ and forgot about the ‘after’, but in Syria they focussed only on the ‘after’ and forgot about the ‘now’.

Tragically, the lessons learnt from Iraq have cost Syria dear.  

[Letter as published in the Evening Standard

English: Former president Hafez al-Assad was o...

English: Former president Hafez al-Assad was on display everywhere, Maaloula – Syria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13 June 2013]

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