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The Daily Star - January 22, 2014

by Rami G. Khouri

The international gathering in Montreux today that precedes the Geneva II Syria peace conference Friday was almost derailed by the dispute over whether Iran would attend.

The issue is important not only because of the specific matter of Iran’s presence, but also for what it tells us about the larger circles of contestation that are reflected in this process.

In the end, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew his invitation to Iran to attend the talks, because Iran did not accept the mandate and purpose of the meetings, which is to implement the 2012 Geneva I declaration calling for a transitional governing mechanism in Syria that would be formed by mutual consent, and, depending on who is speaking, replace President Bashar Assad.

Three separate issues are worth noting in this whole matter: prospects for a negotiated resolution of the war in Syria; Iran’s role in Syria alongside other regional players such as Saudi Arabia; and the role of major external powers, namely the United States and Russia.

These three separate factors that converge in Geneva also remind us why Iran is such a significant player in the region and needs to be involved in any discussions about Syria, given its determination to safeguard what it views as its national interests and to not be pushed around by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia or global ones such as the United States.

The prospects for a negotiated end to the war in Syria are slim, reflecting above all the military balance of power on the ground, which is broadly stalemated right now. It is unlikely that the Syrian government or opposition will muster enough force to defeat the other and prevail in the coming months.

The very concept of a transitional governing authority with full executive powers to replace the Assad government is also so vague that it is meaningless beyond serving to bring the parties together in Switzerland. Assad understands it to mean a degree of domestic reform and liberalization under his family’s tutelage, while the opposition understands it to mean that Assad will step down and allow a more democratic and pluralistic, governing system to take hold. It is possible that the issues of the military balance and the transitional governing mechanism will coincide one day soon.

For example, should massive military assistance to the opposition tilt the war to its advantage and leave Assad vulnerable, his main allies Russia and Iran may cut their losses and seek a dignified exit for him, similar to the scenario that played out in Yemen in 2012 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down but remained in the country and influential behind the scenes. A weakened Assad might opt for this scenario in the future, but not today.

These internal issues will be determined largely according to the balance of power on the ground, but this in turn is heavily influenced by the role of foreign parties inside Syria, especially Iran. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Russia, Turkey, Jordan and the United States. In the past three years, the external players have fought a vicious proxy war that is part of a wider regional struggle for domination, which also plays itself out in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. All the Syrian parties and their main foreign backers will gather in Geneva to discuss peacemaking while also fueling a domestic battle that has often veered into barbarism.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, and also the U.S. and Russia, face off inside Syria because they feel that a Syrian government that is close to them would serve their regional interests. All the external players have poured material and political resources into the battle because they feel they cannot afford to lose, or else they would deeply damage their standing and their interests across the Middle East.

The third dimension of the Geneva talks is the fascinating diplomatic ballet that the U.S., Russia, the U.N., Syrian parties and Iran have played in recent weeks, culminating in the invitation and disinvitation for Iran to participate in Geneva. Like the long dispute over Iran’s nuclear industry that was finally resolved through a negotiated agreement that met the needs of both sides, this dispute is both substantive (regarding the technical terms of reference of the talks) and symbolic (regarding whether Iran must meet American dictates in order to join the process). Iran has made it clear it will not join a process designed to remove Assad and it certainly will not join a process whose rules, it feels, are being written in Washington and include public demands for Tehran to behave in a certain manner.

These issues will be with us for some time, unless the power balance on the ground in Syria changes suddenly.

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