x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UN resolution shifts focus to Syrian peace process

While the chemical-weapons deal raises hopes for a diplomatic end to the civil war, the western-backed Syrian National Coalition is left in a weaker position at the negotiation table.

UN chemical weapons investigators prepare to leave the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus on Saturday. Youssef Barawi / EPA
UN chemical weapons investigators prepare to leave the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus on Saturday. Youssef Barawi / EPA

NEW YORK // The hard-won United Nations resolution that forces Syria to give up its chemical weapons has led to a renewed focus on peace negotiations, with the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon setting a target date of mid-November.

But the western- and Arab League-backed Syrian opposition group that would take part in the so-called Geneva II negotiations is weaker now than perhaps at any time since it was formed, and experts doubt that the talks, if they do take place, will result in a deal.

On Friday night, after days of US-Russian negotiations, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2118, which orders Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles for destruction by mid-2014.

The resolution, which includes a faster-than-expected timetable, does not contain a trigger for the use of force or sanctions if Syria does not comply. If Syria is found to have violated the terms of the plan, the Security Council will meet again to pass a second resolution laying out consequences.

The Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba officially backed the resolution on Friday, but it does not include items the SNC was pushing for, such as the threat of force or addressing Syria’s use of conventional weapons against its citizens, such as missiles and fighter jets.

Other members of the group expressed bitterness.

“The … resolution is a big disappointment for us,” said SNC member Samir Nashar. “It serves the interests of most regional and international powers, including the Syrian regime ... but by no stretch of the imagination does it serve the Syrian people or the Syrian revolution.”

Many inside Syria had long questioned the SNC’s legitimacy, claiming its leadership, based in Istanbul is not representative and disconnected from those living in the war zone. The group suffered the greatest blow to its leadership on Tuesday, when 11 of the most formidable rebel groups, including its strongest militias, denounced dissociated themselves from the SNC.

The terms of the UN resolution also weakened the SNC’s bargaining position by showing they effectively had no input into a deal worked out between the US and Russia, both of whom were focused on the limited goal of preventing US military involvement in the conflict by addressing the chemical weapons.

The leaders of the SNC represent an old opposition elite, western-educated, moderate and committed to a pluralistic future Syria, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. But a new opposition elite has emerged in Syria, comprised of the leaders of the largest militias, and they see the SNC as ineffective in its dealings with western powers.

Even though the US is unlikely to abandon the SNC before any Geneva talks, the group will be unlikely to deliver. “The US is in a very weak position in Geneva II,” Mr Landis said. “All the Russians have to do is deliver Assad to the table, and he said he’s willing, but the Americans have to get the SNC to represent all of Syria’s rebels, which is an [impossible] task.

“They have to talk to the people who actually have guns, otherwise getting a ceasefire is unrealistic. But getting [the many rebel groups] to agree on anything is impossible, so of course the whole thing is impossible.”

The SNC maintains its demand that Bashar Al Assad resigns before a peace deal is made, something the US is unable to guarantee without the direct use of military force, which Washington has refused to consider.

The unexpected thaw in US-Iran relations also comes at a key moment in efforts to bring about peace negotiations in Syria. Iran’s charm offensive over the past two weeks, which culminated in a historic phone call between US President Barack Obama and his newly elected Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, is intended to accelerate an end to crushing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

But, Mr Landis said, the Iranian initiative is also spurred by Tehran’s realisation that its major allies in the Middle East – Damascus, Baghdad and Hizbollah – are all being rapidly weakened by the Syrian war. Offering Mr Obama a nuclear deal – a central goal of US Middle East policy, “takes the pressure off of Iran’s allies”, Mr Landis said.

“Why would he want to jeopardise a nuke deal with Iran by sending a bunch of arms to people who stood with Al Qaeda two days ago? It doesn’t make any sense.”

And without doing more to strengthen the rebel fighters, their ties with the US-backed SNC will fray further and render any Geneva deal weak and unenforceable.

“Obama has decided he can accomplish two things: uphold the 100-year-old international ban on chemical weapons, and try get a nuclear deal with Iran,” Mr Landis said. “Affecting a transition of power from Assad to an opposition group that is peaceful, secular, pro-America? It seems impossible today.”


* With additional reporting by AFP