The Middle East Channel

U.N. Envoy Works to Bridge Divides After Bitter First Day of Syria Peace Talks

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is set to hold separate meetings with delegations from the Syrian government and opposition after bitter exchanges at the opening day of peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland. Talks are scheduled to resume Friday in Geneva, during which Brahimi will shuttle between the two parties. It is unclear if the sides will meet for direct negotiations as originally planned, but Brahimi said, "hopefully by Friday afternoon both sides will sit in one room." Officials aim to salvage the talks by starting with discussing issues of humanitarian access, prisoner swaps, and local cease-fires before tackling larger political issues. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the opening meeting, "As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional rhetoric. They blamed one another." Opposition negotiator Haitham al-Maleh said there was a positive mood despite the difficult first day, mentioning the "international willingness for this to succeed." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the significance of gathering senior diplomats from 40 countries for the conference on Syria and maintained that he knew the talks were going to be "tough." Meanwhile, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri called for an end to clashes between rival Islamist groups in Syria urging them to unite against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Headlines

  • Gunmen on motorcycles attacked a checkpoint south of Cairo Thursday killing five Egyptian policemen and wounding two others.
  • At the World Economic Forum, President Hassan Rouhani outlined plans for Iran's economic growth speaking of "constructive engagement" with the world, an end to animosity with the U.S., and normalized relations with Europe.
  • Israeli intelligence has arrested three Palestinians it claims are al Qaeda members who have been plotting several attacks including a suicide bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
  • Clashes between residents of rival neighborhoods in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli have killed 10 people and wounded over 60 others in the past six days.
  • A Turkish passenger bus slid off an icy road Thursday killing 21 people and injuring 20 others.
  • The Moroccan parliament has amended a law that had enabled rapists of underage girls to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims.

Arguments and Analysis

'Stopping the Syria Contagion' (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Project Syndicate)

"Here are three ways to simplify the equation and maximize the chances that the parties to the Geneva II peace conference will be able to agree on more than the desirability of someday holding a Geneva III.

First, the most important contribution that this conference can make to the possibility of a negotiated settlement and a political transition in Syria is to change the principal parties' incentives. In the run-up to Geneva II, each party has sought to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table by killing as many adversaries and holding or regaining as much ground as possible. The task now for would-be peace brokers is to halt that dynamic by agreeing on criteria for participation in whatever elections will eventually be held, regardless of whether President Bashar al-Assad remains in power until then.

Those criteria must include the parties' willingness to allow humanitarian aid to flow to all Syrian civilians under their control and an end to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including systematic targeting of medical personnel, starvation of populations under siege, and executions of war prisoners. Here the UN must reaffirm its 'responsibility to protect' doctrine, not as a justification for military intervention, but as a fundamental principle agreed by all countries: governments must protect their citizens. If Assad's Ba'ath party cannot uphold that responsibility, it forfeits its own legitimacy as a participant in any future government."

'Why Syria's Assad Enters Geneva Talks in a Position of Strength' (Joshua Landis, Al Jazeera America)

"Understanding why Assad's regime survives more than two years after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a 'dead man walking' is critical for gauging the outcome of the Geneva II talks. 

The regime's resilience is based, first and foremost, on the Syrian army. Without its loyalty, Assad would likely have fallen as quickly as Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak did in 2011. But while many soldiers and officers did join the rebellion, most did so as individuals; few entire units defected, and no entire divisions did. Structurally, the military held together, and it was able to replenish its ranks through intensive recruitment among the Alawite minority, where many are loyal to the regime and still more live in mortal fear of sectarian retribution at the hands of the Sunni-led armed rebellion. The same factors allowed the military to expand its capabilities through the paramilitary Popular Committees, often called shabiha. And it has also been able to enlist the support in critical battles of units of the Shia Hezbollah militia from neighboring Lebanon, whose leaders recognize that their own military fortunes depend on maintaining the resupply lines that the Assad regime has long provided.

Just as important as the military's loyalty to the regime have been its superior armaments. Even if rebel fighters, who number well in excess of 100,000 by most estimates, outnumber the Syrian army, in any battle for territory they are often little match for the army's dramatic technological and organizational advantage. Rebel militias have no answer for the artillery, armor and airpower of the Syrian military. Perhaps even more important, the rebels have no central command. And it is difficult to imagine, today, how the rebels could plausibly overcome these disadvantages."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

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