21 Jan 2014

Not the best start to Syria’s Humpty Dumpty talks

The Swiss ski resort of Montreux is crowded today. The Australians are here and the Indonesians, not to mention representatives of South Korea and Mexico. To the naive observer this might seem odd, given that they’re discussing the war in Syria, and most countries represented do not have a dog in the fight.

Iran, however, which has many dogs, and fierce ones at that – namely thousands of Revolutionary Guard and fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia it supports, all battling on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad – will not be here.

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This is how diplomacy works. The Americans vetoed Iranian participation because the Islamic republic refused to sign up publicly to the communique from the 2012 peace talks, dubbed “Geneva I”. On Sunday UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (below, right) ¬†invited Iran nonetheless. Maybe he was hoping no-one would notice because it was the weekend, or because he muttered “Iran” quietly in the midde of a long line of irrelevant countries invited along for the ride.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrives ahead of the Geneva-2 conference, at Geneva International Airport

Unfortunately for Mr Ban, the Americans did notice, as did the Syrian opposition, who threatened not to turn up at all. In the end the UN secretary general was forced to rescind Iran’s invitation. This, again, is how diplomacy works – or maybe it’s an example of how sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

Not the best start to peace talks that no-one thinks have much chance of achieving peace.

The argument over Geneva I is, in itself, an interesting example of what could be called Humpty Dumpty diplomacy, where – as the Alice in Wonderland character said, “words mean what I want them to mean”. The Americans and the British say that the Geneva I communique specifies that President Assad must step down. Well, I’ve read it and I see no such stipulation. It says there must be a “transitional governing body”. Of course it doesn’t say Assad must step down! If it did, the Russians wouldn’t have signed.

The only reason that tomorrow’s talks, dubbed Geneva II (even though they start in Montreux), are happening is because Russia, which supports President Assad, has a different interpretation of the meaning of “transitional governing body”. Sometimes a diplomatic deal is a whole row of Humpty Dumpties sitting on a wall saying the words mean what they want them to mean.

Except, of course, we know what happened next: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. While the leaders of the major powers and some regional players including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia may be able to fashion a fudgy communique, real issues will come up on Friday when the UN Secretary General’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, tries to get the Syrian government¬† and the opposition Syrian national coalition to negotiate face to face.

President Assad refuses to step down. The SNC doesn’t represent the fighters on the ground. The Syrian regime is besieging the Damascus suburbs. The rebels are fighting each other more than government forces. A new report provides compelling evidence of extreme torture and murder in Assad’s prisons. All the terrible, fundamental problems that make a diplomatic solution essential and, probably, impossible for a long time. Tragically, civil wars usually last until both sides are tired of fighting. Only then do they come to the table with any seriousness.

In Syria the fighting and suffering continues regardless of who is in Geneva. What about the diplomats from the Holy See, Luxembourg and the rest? Their job is to look optimistic and to back poor Mr Brahimi in his seemingly impossible mission. After that, they may aswell go skiing on the slopes surrounding Montreux.

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