The eyes of the world have turned towards Geneva, with the hopes that a conference there can provide a solution to the nightmare that Syria is going through. The Geneva II conference resulted, on Jan. 25, in face to face meetings between the Syrian state and representatives of the opposition rebels. The conference is expected to run for a week or more—ongoing at the time of this writing. As widely believed, however, such a conference is unlikely to make a significant breakthrough towards bringing an end to Syria's civil war.
The recent conference is commonly referred to as Geneva II because it is a follow up to a June 2012 conference in the same city. The 2012 conference was headed by U.N. special envoy (and former secretary general) Kofi Anan. It was a gathering heavily composed of foreign governments and Syrian elements who wanted the state overthrown. It passed resolutions calling for a transition government.
At the time, the government was losing ground in the civil war and seemed unlikely to survive much longer. Feeding the notion of the imminent demise of Bashar Assad's government was the United States’ oft stated "all options are on the table" motto. If heavy funding, training and arming of the rebels through U.S. client states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were not enough, it was expected that the United States would likely find a way to intervene directly. At the time, for the U.S., its junior allies and clients, the main challenge was forming a viable opposition political entity that could be installed in power.
The Libyan example was fresh in everyone's mind. In Libya, it had quickly become clear that the predominantly right-wing rebels had no chance of winning the civil war. As the rebels were being routed, at the very time that their stronghold, Benghazi, was threatened, the U.S. and its imperialist allies rammed a "No Fly Zone" resolution through the United Nations Security Council. That was all the legitimacy that the U.S., France and the UK needed to start the bombing of Libya, devastate and destroy the country and overthrow the state.
Syria was not to become Libya 2.0. The Libyan model of the overthrow of an independent state was not to be repeated in Syria. Russia and China refused to sign on to a similar "No Fly Zone" resolution. In the late summer of 2013, the Obama administration made serious preparations for bombing Syria. The pretext was a poison gas attack for which responsibility had not been established and for which the Syrian state had had the least motive to perpetrate. However, Russia's intervention and the agreement of the Syrian state to dismantle its chemical weapons deprived the Obama administration of its pretext to start a new war.
What sets Geneva II apart from Geneva I are the conditions on the ground. Over time, Syrians living in rebel-controlled territory experienced the true character of the rebels. Many people who had been opposed to Bashar Assad's government grew to hate and fear what Syria under the control of the rebels would look like.
Rebel infighting kills nearly 1,400
Infighting among the rebels has been another significant cause of their setbacks. The rebels are not a homogeneous group and not highly centralized. But broadly speaking, they can be categorized into two broad camps. One is the forces associated with the so-called Free Syrian Army, led primarily by officers who have defected from the Syrian military. The FSA is the force that Western powers are supporting as a "pro-democracy" force. However, the only "democratic" thing about them is their allegiance to their imperialist benefactors. "Alawites to the Grave, Christians to Beirut," a common chant in opposition rallies, reflects the true character of this "pro-democracy" opposition which seeks the extermination of religious minorities.
Another opposition camp has emerged as a formidable force in some rebel-held areas. This camp is comprised primarily of non-Syrian fighters, from many other countries including Iraq, Libya and even Chechnya. These forces have ties with, or are sympathetic to, al-Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria) is one political formation that represents some, but not all, such forces. To these forces, the secular state of Syria, which grants equal rights to Alawite and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians, needs to be overthrown and replaced with the imposition of Shari'a law under a strictly sectarian Sunni state.
From the earliest stages of the civil war, clashes have occurred between different rebel groups. But in recent months, isolated clashes have escalated to an all-out war. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-imperialist outlet based in Europe, "the number of people killed in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Islamist and rebel forces since January 3 has risen to 1,395." This fact is important to keep in mind as Western media and governments condemn Assad for "killing his own people." By definition, in a civil war, each side kills their own people. In the case of the rebels, the people killed include government supporters, civilians and rival rebel factions.
Some aspects of Geneva II reflect the change in the balance of power. Unlike Geneva I, the Syrian state is represented in this conference. And Iran was briefly invited to the conference, although the UN Secretary General promptly rescinded the invitation under U.S. pressure.
Diplomacy reflects power relations
Still, diplomacy and international relations at any given time reflect the power relations. The strength of the imperialist camp means that a UN-mediated conference cannot be impartial, nor even realistically reflective of the balance of forces in the Syrian conflict. One indication of this is how all the funders and supporters of the Syrian rebels are present at the conference, while Iran is left out. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, arch-reactionary Gulf monarchies, have bankrolled the Syrian opposition from day one. NATO member Turkey, Syria's neighbor, has turned its border regions into a staging ground for the rebels. Yet Iran is excluded from the conference due to its support for Bashar Assad's government.
Another indication that imperialist pressure, not facts on the ground, largely shapes the proceedings of the conference is the representation of the opposition. Early in 2011, when the conflict in Syria started, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was instrumental in forming the National Transitional Council, later renamed the Syrian National Council, which eventually morphed into the Syrian National Coalition. The SNC was to present a respectable, secular and pro-democracy face for an opposition within Syria that was far from being a secular political force yearning for democracy. The SNC is heavily comprised of intellectuals and academics from the Diaspora with no connection to Syria or the rebels. SNC's elected presidents have included a university professor in Paris and a U.S. citizen who has resided in Texas for decades. Even the pro-imperialist FSA rebels regularly raise objections to the Syrian National Coalition representing them.
Not only do the Syrian opposition participants in the Geneva II conference not truly represent the Syrian rebels, they do not even represent the Syrian opposition abroad. The Syrian National Coalition held highly contentious and chaotic meetings in Istanbul trying to decide whether or not to participate in Geneva II. In the end, the Istanbul meeting sent delegates to Geneva II after boycotts and walkouts by its own members with what was clearly less than a 50 percent vote. The Syrian National Council, now one of the organizations forming the Syrian National Coalition, withdrew from the coalition on January 20 in opposition to the decision to attend the conference.
Therefore, Geneva II had representatives from the Syrian state but no representatives from the Jihadi rebels and highly questionable representation from the pro-West rebels. The Syrian state clearly has the upper hand in the civil war but, under imperialist pressure, the agenda is set as if the state is on the verge of collapse. Kerry repeatedly declared that Assad must step down: "There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern". SNC leader Ahmed Jarba called on the government to "immediately transfer power" to a transitional authority. In response to Kerry, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem stated: "No-one in the world has the right to confer or withdraw the legitimacy of a president, a constitution or a law, except for the Syrians themselves."
As a general rule, cease fires and other agreements between adversaries reflect their relative strengths on the ground. Warring parties often attempt to make significant advances right before a major round of negotiations to improve their bargaining power at the table. But why is it that the Syrian opposition forces are so uncompromising in the negotiations while suffering defeat after defeat on the ground? Why does the representative of a side in a position of relative weakness call on its adversary to "immediately transfer power?"
Rebels rely on hopes of imperialist intervention
The answer is that the leaders of Syria's imperialist-sponsored opposition do not operate on the basis of relying on their own strength. In all their calculations, they rely not just on funding, arming and support by the imperialists and their reactionary clients, but also on the hopes of direct military intervention by their Western patrons.
"Regime change" has long been the real U.S. policy towards Syria. And while the Obama administration's efforts to build up support for a bombing campaign against Syria have failed so far, the danger still exists. The opposing sides in the Syrian conflict might long ago have reached a negotiated solution if it were not for the refusal of the opposition to settle for anything less than a complete capitulation by the state. The opposition refuses to negotiate realistically not because it is winning the civil war but because it counts on Western interference.
And this is the key point for the U.S. anti-war movement. U.S. interference to date is a major contributor to the disastrous living conditions that the Syrian people are suffering. In September 2013, nationwide protests led by the ANSWER Coalition played a major role in preventing a planned U.S. bombing of Syria. Going forward, we need to mobilize not just against the possible bombing of Syria, but also against other forms of U.S. interference that have been ongoing since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The fate of Syria must be decided by the Syrian people. U.S. hands off Syria!