x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Kerry ramps up diplomacy for Syria peace conference

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, will today meet allies of the United States and members of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group in Jordan's capital to discuss Russian-American plans for a peace conference. Omar Karmi reports

Omani foreign minister Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah (left) greets US secretary of state John Kerry as he arrives in Muscat.
Omani foreign minister Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah (left) greets US secretary of state John Kerry as he arrives in Muscat.

LONDON // International players are gearing up for a first major diplomatic effort on Syria in 11 months to try to kick start negotiations between the warring parties.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, will today meet allies of the United States and members of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group in Jordan's capital to discuss Russian-American plans for a peace conference that could take place as early as June.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, said yesterday that Syria's opposition and government were preparing to take part in the talks.

"The Syrian people are building great hopes on the conference, as the opposition prepares itself to take part and likewise the Syrian regime prepares to take part in this conference," he told reporters at the Arab League in Cairo. Diplomatic efforts will continue tomorrow when Arab League ministers meet in Beirut and next week when the European Union discusses its weapons embargo on Syria.

The sudden rash of diplomacy was sparked by agreement earlier this month between Washington and Moscow to renew attempts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria's civil war, which has so far claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, according to UN estimates, and left 1.5 million Syrians refugees in neighbouring countries.

Russia has been one of the Syrian government's most loyal supporters and has rejected US-led attempts to secure a transfer of power in Syria as outside interference in a sovereign country. A joint Russian-US drive marks the first serious international effort to get the warring parties to negotiate since June 2012.

But both sides are likely to struggle to get the antagonists to participate in any meaningful way, say analysts, and there is precious little sign of what form a diplomatic breakthrough might take.

Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president, has already expressed his scepticism. In an interview with Clarine, an Argentine newspaper, last week, the Syrian president ruled out negotiations with "terrorists" - which is how the he describes anti-government fighters - and suggested western countries would not negotiate in good faith.

Mr Kerry, meanwhile, may also struggle to convince the fractious opposition and doubting members of the "Friends of Syria" grouping that the conference can bring anything positive.

Syria's otherwise divided opposition is united around the demand that Mr Assad must step aside. The US and European countries have all called for the same, along with Turkey and Qatar.

But the demand would seem to preclude negotiations and Russia has already called for it to be dropped ahead of any conference.

Even the opposition Syrian National Coalition, expected to accept an invitation, has cautioned that its support should not be taken for granted.

"So far those who called for the conference do not have a clear idea about it. If we don't have a clear idea we cannot form a decision whether to take part," acting head George Sabri said last week.

What would seem a basic requirement for a negotiations process - a ceasefire - is fraught with problems, said Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies// IN THE US// and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

A temporary end to fighting, Mr Serwer pointed out, would mean a de facto division of the country into Syrian government and rebel-held areas, a situation the regime would be unlikely to agree to.

Indeed, until the Syrian government no longer sees a "viable" military alternative, it is unlikely to agree to any meaningful diplomatic process, Mr Serwer said.

Nevertheless, he suggested Russia, using its leverage, could force the Syrian government to the table.

The situation on the ground, meanwhile, suggests growing regime confidence, said Dave Hartwell, a Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's, a London-based group of publications focused on international security and intelligence affairs.

The Syrian army is consolidating its positions after a number of military advances in recent weeks in the south and the west of Syria. It has been directly aided by Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, in this, while Iran has not shown any sign of wavering in its support either, Mr Hartwell said.

Western unease with arming the Syrian opposition has only spread and even staunch Gulf supporters of the opposition appear to be growing wary of arming an opposition that is fractured and for which one of the more effective fighting forces is Jabhat Al Nusra, a group that is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and which has sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda.

A BBC report yesterday suggested that, just as Russia is sending state-of-the-art anti-missile weaponry to Damascus, the flow of weapons to the opposition, much of it understood to be paid for by Qatar, is slowing.

"The Syrian government is playing the long game," said Mr Hartwell, who suggested that if Mr Assad's forces could defeat the secular opposition, the radical Sunni groups left would be easier to rally support against.

"Provided Damascus can continue to get Iranian and Russian support and there continues to be a lack of cohesion in western policy, [Damascus] will feel fairly comfortable."

Western powers, and the US in particular, remain focused on past lessons, said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think-tank.

"The primary stumbling block for an American policy [on Syria] is learning the lesson of Afghanistan in the 1980s. I think there is tremendous fear about blow-back."

Chances that the EU might step in remain distant. William Hague, the UK's foreign secretary on Monday told the UK parliament that Britain and France were determined to push for amendments to the current EU arms embargo on Syria, which expires June 1.

Even an amended EU arms embargo does not hide the fact that the outlook for any US-Russian Geneva summit is poor. Mr Serwer invoked the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as a possible precedent, saying most conferences there failed, but they were nevertheless important.

Mr Cook said the proposed summit only showed just how few constructive ideas there are right now.

"This is essentially an exercise in buying some time and hoping that somehow, somewhere along the way, the situation changes so that a solution opens up."

okarmi@thenational.ae

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