The Middle East Channel

Syria Peace Conference Opens With Bitter Remarks

A long-planned peace conference opened Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland with the Syrian government and opposition meeting face to face for the first time since fighting began in March 2011. In his opening remarks, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes, bringing up new evidence of torture investigated by three war crimes prosecutors, and demanded the government delegation agree to the "Geneva I" transition of power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem accused the West of "pouring arms" into Syria and backing terrorism. He addressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Assad had lost legitimacy and that there could be no place for him in a transitional government, asserting, "No one, Mr. Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the [Syrian] president other than the Syrians themselves." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealed to the warring parties to seize the opportunity to resolve their conflict. The conference began with more than 30 international governments, but is expected to be followed by mediated talks between government and opposition representatives at the end of the week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose invite to the conference was withdrawn on Monday, said the peace talks were unlikely to succeed due to the lack of influential players at the meeting. Russian and U.S. officials noted the talks would be complicated and the process would not be quick, though according to a senior U.S. administration official, "the opening of the process is important." Meanwhile, clashes were reported in several areas of Syria on Wednesday including the suburbs of Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, and Homs. Additionally, a government airstrike killed 10 people in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Headlines  

  • An Israeli airstrike on Wednesday killed two Palestinians, one of whom the military claimed fired rockets into southern Israel during last week's funeral for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
  • Yemeni parties at the National Dialogue Conference have agreed on a document upon which a new constitution will be based, after a Houthi representative traveling to the meeting was killed.
  • Algeria sent 3,000 police officers to the southern desert city of Ghardaia in efforts to calm weeks of clashes between Sunni Muslims and Berbers, arresting seven men.
  • Israel has announced plans to build 381 additional West Bank settlement homes, threatening Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said would not extend past nine months.
  • Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said he will remain in his position despite the resignation of five Islamist ministers from his government protesting continued insecurity. 

Articles & Analysis

'Reflections on a Referendum' (Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian, Atlantic Council)

"Overall, however, observers reported no systematic flagrant technical violations that could have jeopardized the integrity of the vote and none of the individual violations would have a statistically significant effect on the results. The official announcement of the more than 98 percent approval vote and 38.6 percent turnout was more than believable and matched our impressions of the process, but the politics of the referendum never took place inside the polling centers.

The bigger questions related to the inarguably politically repressive climate in which the referendum was held. In and around the polling centers Egyptians were gripped by a festive fever, as if proudly affirming to themselves, and the world, that they have a handle on their country's democratic transition. Between the music, banners, and ululation, there was a pervasive feeling that the country was celebrating a range of conflated issues: support for Sisi and the military, support for Morsi's removal, support for the constitution and the implicit rejection of terrorism, with the Muslim Brotherhood having recently been designated a terrorist organization. As the man at the sugar cane stand revealed, however, a large cross-section of the population was never invited to the party. Although the government announced turnout figures higher than the 2012 referendum (figures impossible to verify independently), the tally reveals a significant portion of population opted to stay at home. Unclear, however, is how many abstained from voting as an active boycott or due to a returning sense of apathy pervasive under the Hosni Mubarak regime."

'Syria's Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth' (Annie Sparrow, New York Review of Books)

"Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power. Yet wildtype 1 polio -- the most vicious form of the disease -- has been confirmed across much of Syria.

Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end.

This man-made outbreak is a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war -- a war crime of truly epidemic proportions. Even before the uprising, in areas considered politically unsympathetic like Deir Ezzor, the government stopped maintaining sanitation and safe-water services, and began withholding routine immunizations for preventable childhood diseases. Once the war began, the government started ruthless attacks on civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing millions to seek refuge in filthy, crowded, and cold conditions. Compounding the problem are Assad's ongoing attacks on doctors and the health care system, his besieging of cities, his obstruction of humanitarian aid, and his channeling of vaccines and other relief to pro-regime territory."

'America Must Stand Firm on Syria at the Geneva II Conference' (Fred Hof, The New Republic)

"Diplomacy is often a matter of making chicken salad out of another substance entirely. Given the unlikelihood of Bashar al-Assad taking practical responsibility for the ruin he has brought to his country, is there anything at all to be gained by the West at Geneva II?

Washington would do well to come to Geneva with a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners attitude. This is no time for even-handed equivocation. Russia can be counted on to support the regime. Any American inclination toward mediation will result in the opposition delegation being isolated and perhaps stampeded out of Geneva.

The Syrian delegation, led by the Syrian National Coalition, should use the Geneva spotlight to reintroduce itself to Syria and to the world. Specifically, it should table the long-awaited alternative to the Assad regime: a transitional governing body roster reflecting excellence, experience, inclusiveness, and decency. Assad has convinced the credulous that the only alternative to him is Islamist extremism, including Al Qaeda. Geneva II is where the Syrian National Coalition can expose Assad's big lie for what it is. It is vital that the opposition keep the conference focused on political transition and that it be supported unequivocally by the United States and its allies to this end."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

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