If we speak about the elimination of chemical weapons owned by Syria, then we can say significant progress has been made, but the question of an international conference on the settlement of the Syrian conflict remains open. B. Assad is not going to send to the Geneva-2 Conference, which is scheduled for January 22, 2014 in Montreux, a delegation announcing his capitulation, while the opposition wants to discuss the establishment of a new government for the transitional period, without Assad and his inner circle. Meanwhile, those who may exercise influence on the national coalition of rebel forces, pretend not being able to obtain concessions.
Thus, the chances of success at Geneva-2 are very low. On December 15, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed frank pessimism about the success of the international conference on Syria, the Geneva-2, as well as about the future of the Arab nation as a whole. According to the French minister, he and his European counterparts are doing their best to achieve a successful conclusion at the conference, but a positive result is in “serious doubt”. Fabius admitted that the moderate anti-government forces in Syria, which France is working with, are “experiencing severe difficulties” and retreat under the pressure of Islamists. Speaking at a business conference in Monaco, the French minister noted that “unfortunately, he is very pessimistic” about the peace prospects in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has “many shortcomings”, but he is not an idiot, said the head of the Foreign Ministry, adding that he does not see why “Assad would suddenly wish to step down from power”. As for those opposition groups, which we support, they are experiencing great difficulties,” said Mr. Fabius.
Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the Syrian opposition groups desires to achieve a peaceful settlement. Such statements coming from Western countries, on the contrary, promote the militant mood of the radical groups, which leads to an escalation of the conflict. It should be noted that Russia is worried about reports saying that rebel forces have captured more than a dozen major arms depots in Syria, especially in the context of the Geneva-2 Peace Conference, announced the press service of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Russian Ministry recalled that on November 22, the leadership of the “Islamic Front” declared complete severance of relations with the Syrian Free Army, which is supported by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Islamists are urging the rebels to fight for the construction of an Islamic state in Syria, based on Sharia Laws. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces cannot agree on the representatives of which groups that they wish to send to the conference in Switzerland.
Returning to the subject of chemical weapons, we should mention a very important event. The head of the inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Oke Selstrem, told reporters at a press conference at UN Headquarters that video footage shot by a team working with VGTRK correspondent Anastasia Popova at the place of the chemical attack in Khan al-Asal, helped in the investigation of this incident. Her reportage, which in the spring was shown to UN accredited journalists, contains pictures from the scene of the attack, interviews with eyewitnesses, with doctors who were brought the dead and injured people, as well as with of experts of the University of Aleppo. “This video, along with a great deal of other information in the public domain, has helped us to understand the entire picture,” said Oke Selstrem.
This report, establishing the facts about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, could be used as the basis for an investigation, the purpose of which would be to prosecute those who were behind this attack. At the same time, he expressed his conviction that the United Nations had made the right decision, not asking him to determine which of the parties to the conflict in the SAR was responsible for the attack. “We were called upon to establish the facts, which we did, and now these can be used by others. They can connect the facts, and other information, to find out who was responsible for the attacks,” said Mr. Selstrem at a press conference at UN Headquarters. According to him, in the course of the work in Syria, experts “collected as much information as they could”. “How this will be used in the future, we do not know. However, it would be useful if this problem is given to another body for resolution,” said the head of the mission. In addition, he stressed that determining those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria will require significantly greater resources, as well as a new mandate, distinct from that which was entrusted to his mission.
The day before, Mr. Selstrem delivered to the UN Secretary General a report containing the results of investigations into seven alleged uses of chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria. Inspectors were able to confirm that toxic substances were used in five of these cases, including in the suburb of Aleppo, Khan El Asal on March 19. The attacks were directed at both civilians and government soldiers, which suggests that opposition forces were involved in these incidents. This version is also supported by the fact that in some cases, the chemicals, as well as shells, were “home-made”.
The experts did not visit the areas of the attacks, because of the difficult security situation in those areas. Conclusions have been made about Khan El Asal based on data provided by the Syrian authorities, Russia, UK, USA and France. In particular, the inspectors received the results of an analysis, carried out by the Syrian doctors immediately after the attack.
Presenting the report to the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 13, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that those who used chemical weapons in Syria must be punished. The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, during a press conference at the headquarters of the organization, reminded journalists that there exist mechanisms for determining those responsible for such crimes. These, in particular, were used to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and the head of the Pakistani government, Benazir Bhutto.
On December 16, the document, prepared by UN inspectors, led by Oke Selstrem should be considered at a closed meeting of the Security Council.
Referring to the practical procedures for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the OPCW plans to spend 140–150 million dollars, while the Russian Federation will provide materials for its liquidation and transport vehicles. Russian peacekeepers will not be participating in the operation involving the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. Moreover, experts from Russia will deliver chemical weapons to the Syrian port of Latakia. “This is not a question of peacekeeping. At this stage, we will be limited to the logistic support of this operation,” said G. Gatilov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister. According to him, there is a certain distribution of responsibilities among the members of the international community: some countries will provide logistics, some – ships for transportation, while others will directly carry out the elimination of the chemical weapons. This distribution of responsibilities, he said, can be described as a “very positive example of international cooperation”. According to Mr. Gatilov, all the steps for eliminating chemical weapons have been coordinated with the Syrian government. “There is a permanent channel of communications established between the Syrian leadership and representatives of the OPCW. As far as we know, the OPCW appreciates the cooperation of Syria in this matter,” said the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation. He also stressed that Russia previously conducted its own investigation of chemical weapons usage in the SAR. “Our experts also did not confirm that this was committed by the government troops. There is plenty of evidence that this chemical attack could have been perpetrated by the opposition,” said the Deputy Head of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Mr. Gatilov recalled that there about one thousand natives of Western Europe that are fighting in Syria, stressing that “this situation is increasingly worrisome for the European states”.
Probably that is why Western countries have become more cautious in supplying arms to the rebels, fearing that these will fall into the hands of extremist and terrorist groups. A representative of the Free Syrian Army has expressed disappointment with the decision of Washington and London to stop delivery of “non-lethal” military aid. The press secretary of the Free Syrian Army, al-Mihdad Loya, said that the representatives of the Supreme Military Council expressed a desire to meet with the leadership of the U.S.A. and Britain to “clarify the situation”. al-Mihdad Loya hopes that the decision to stop the supply of medicines, clothing and transportation will be revised, as “it has a negative impact on all Syrian citizens and affects the interests not only of the Free Syrian Army”, reports RT. The day before, it was reported that Great Britain, following the U.S. example, suspended the supply of non-lethal military equipment to the north of Syria, where the “Islamic Front” rebel groups had captured warehouses and bases controlled by the Free Syrian Army. “We have no plans to supply any equipment until the situation becomes clear. We will closely monitor what is happening,” Reuters quoted the representative of the British Embassy in Turkey – this is the country through which non-lethal military equipment is transported, in particular, body armor. We should recall that on December 7, radical rebel units of the “Islamic Front” managed to capture the armories of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the Bab al-Hawa, near the border with Turkey.
So how do things stand now with the Geneva-2, and what is impeding the organization of the peace conference on Syria?
First, the Geneva-2 Conference has been repeatedly postponed. The proposition about convening the conference was put forward during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow on May 7 of this year. The United States and Russia have a common understanding that the terms should be declared by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, together with his special representative on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. However, these terms should not be artificial, but designed so that all parties would be willing to come to Geneva and start serious conversations.
Second, Moscow and the Syrian government have long before agreed that the latter will send a delegation to the conference, and Damascus has recently confirmed its position, but the Syrian opposition has been sending the most contradictory signals. First, its leader said that they have decided to go, then his deputy indicated that it was pointless to go until they achieve military superiority “on the ground”. Another example – first, the opposition claimed that there would be no preconditions, and then, the so-called “National Opposition” stated that the “Group of Friends of Syria” (Western countries and GCC countries, supporting the National Coalition) a few months ago in London confirmed they would support the National Coalition in calling for a regime change at the conference. Thus, preconditions were clearly set.
Third, the conference should have a single agenda, which is defined in the communiqué issued last June in Geneva. It states that all issues concerning the future of this country must be decided by the Syrians themselves, in negotiations between the government and all sectors of the opposition, on the basis of general consensus.
Fourth, the national opposition coalition is once again beginning to “come unglued”. There were announcements that the “Muslim Brotherhood”, which is part of the Syrian National Coalition, will work on their own special campaign. There were also reports that the militias of the so-called Free Syrian Army, for the most part, have ceased to obey the National Coalition, if they ever actually obeyed in the past. According to very recent information, about twenty-odd groups are united into the “Islamic Front”. This organization recognizes neither the Free Syrian Army nor the National Coalition nor al-Qaeda. However, it is formed of groups who are very close to the Dzhabhat en-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – extremist, in the spirit of al-Qaeda, jihadist groups. This “Islamic Front” has announced the goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in Syria and the so-called Great Levant. In addition, there are reports that these forces are funded by some sources in the Gulf monarchies.
As Mr. Lavrov stated on December 14 in an interview with “Russia 24” TV Channel: “On December 20 in Geneva, there will be held the final preparatory meeting between us, the Americans and UN personnel, with the participation of other permanent members of the UN Security Council, the League of Arab States and Turkey. However, all these issues need to be clarified, because we are told that the National Coalition will represent all of them. At the same time, other political groups, opponents of Mr. Assad, which are not formed from immigrants, but those people who have always lived and continue to live in Syria, such as the National Coordinating Committee and the Supreme Kurdish Council of Syria – do not agree with the leadership of the National Coalition, because they do not agree with its very extremist positions. Everything should be clarified. We have only one reference – the Security Council Resolution 2118, which endorsed the process of chemical disarmament in Syria. It is being carried out, and there will be no serious disruptions. This resolution also endorsed the organization of the Geneva-2 Conference, stressing that dialogue should be carried out between representatives of the entire spectrum of Syrian society”. Further, the Russian minister stressed that now “Syrian patriots must choose what is more important for them – to fight on the side of those who want to turn Syria into a caliphate, or to return to Syria its centuries-old image: a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, secular state where all lived well together”.
However, at the same time, along with the Syrian opposition and those unhappy with the regime for one reason or another, more and more foreign fighters, jihadists, are appearing in Syria. They are beginning to fight with everyone, with the regime and its opponents, trying to take some territory and impose Sharia Laws. If earlier this was a very limited scale phenomenon, now we are talking about the threat of the whole of Syria and other vast territories in the Middle East and North Africa being captured by terrorists, insurgents and other jihadi extremists of all stripes, and the establishment of the “orders” of an international terrorist caliphate.
Therefore, the convening of the Geneva-2 Conference does not only address the interests of the Syrian people, whether supporters of Bashar al-Assad or his opponents who do not have extreme positions, but also of the entire world community. Otherwise, terrorism will firmly become settled in the Middle East and North Africa, spreading to the neighboring regions, including Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. And then this problem will become global. However, the West is clearly not mature enough to understand Russian arguments and the need to change their shortsighted policy in the Syrian conflict. There is, however, hope that eventually this will happen. But for this to happen, it is necessary to critically evaluate oneself and gain the courage to recognize the fallacy of the old policy. It is very hard to believe in a happy ending in this situation, especially since under the pressure exerted by Saudi Arabia, other external forces and internal foreign interest lobbyists, the U.S.A. have recently stalled the process of developing an implementation plan for a second Geneva agreement – involving Iran’s nuclear program.
Viktor Titov, PhD, political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.