Robert Olson: Troubles brewing over Syria conference

January 21, 2014 

Geneva II, the international conference scheduled this week, is an attempt to address the civil war in Syria.

There are several reasons these talks will be even more contentious than the failed Geneva I talks.

The United States and the European Union, two members of the coalition opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad, are considering talking to the indigenous Syrian nationals and Islamists that oppose the fanatical, largely non-Syrian, al-Qaida (Arab) groups that are strong in Syria and Iraq. The Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, support the Syrian Islamists and the al-Qaida groups.

Complicating matters even more is that Turkey, a strong member of the anti-Assad coalition, supports the al- Qaida groups, or did until Jan. 8, when it said it no longer support would them against the Syrian Kurds fighting for political autonomy in northeast Syria. Turkey fears that if Syrian Kurds achieve political autonomy it will limit Ankara's efforts to manage the Kurds in Turkey, who are demanding political autonomy, which the Kurds in Iraq have gained.

Russia seeks a pro-Moscow regime in Syria to strengthen its position in the eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East, and that will not allow a conservative, let alone zealously fundamentalist (salafist), regime to emerge in Syria, especially one that advocates or condones terrorism.

Russia has been at war with such Islamist groups throughout the Caucasus since the 1990s, especially in Dagestan and Chechnya. Chechens were deeply embittered by the destruction meted out to them and their capital, Grozny. The recent bombings in Volgograd are just one indication of the scores of Islamist attacks in Russia during the past decade. Russia has been arresting, detaining and imprisoning thousands in the Caucasus for the past year-and-a-half to provide security for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

As the horrific death and displacement in Syria mounts, China sees more opportunities to further strengthen its ties with Iran and Iraq as well as with the Arab Gulf countries.

Iran continues to support Assad to keep a Shia (Alawite) regime in power. Because of its negotiations with the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), Tehran might agree that Assad be removed from power but insist that Shia play a strong role in whatever government is formed. Iran must do this to maintain relations with the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shia government in Baghdad.

Such developments will depend on agreements reached by Iran and the P5+1 on Iran's nuclear program talks in Geneva at the same time as the Geneva II talks. Secretary of State John Kerry realizes that the Iranians must be represented in some way at Geneva II, as Washington and the P5+1 countries have much more important issues to discuss with Iran than the Syrian civil war.

Ankara perceived Damascus' action as a deadly threat to its national security, preempting any possibility of earnest negotiations with militant Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey. The Kurdish threat to Turkey from Syria was so great that Ankara began to allow more arms to flow to al-Qaida-connected and other fanatical Muslim groups. This in turn further weakened the Free Syrian Army opposition that is largely made up of nationalist Syrians and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood adherents.

The irony of those developments would have meant that nationalist and secular armed opposition to the Assad regime at Geneva would have been diminished. Although the United States, European Union and some Arab states claim they've stopped supporting al-Qaida-connected groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, it seems Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries have continued their support.

But Kerry announced that the United States might allow non-al-Qaida groups, such as the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, to participate in negotiations.

It is difficult to see how much can be accomplished in Geneva. But the destruction of Syria demands international attention.

The most propitious development would be that Iran, because of its dire economic needs, agrees to allow Assad to be removed while stipulating that Alawites play an important role in whatever transitional government emerges in order to oppose the fanatical non-Syrian Islamist groups — letting developments materialize from that action.

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of The Ba'th in Syria, 1947-1982.

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