Does Syria have a future or is this Arab country doomed? The answer is not any clearer following the Geneva II peace talks.
To be sure, convening the meeting was a major achievement in itself. For the first time in three years of war, officials of the Assad regime and opposition leaders sat in the same rooms, conversing for more than a week. That alone might offer a modicum of hope.
It was billed as a follow-up to Geneva I, held in June 2012, when world powers agreed on a goal of establishing a transitional governing body in Syria with “full executive powers.” That body, to be formed by “mutual consent,” would include “members of the present government and the opposition.”
One Syrian group came prepared, with a blueprint for peace, the Syrian Transition Roadmap. Developed over the course of a year by some 300 Syrians, the roadmap calls for political reforms, including a parliament that is representative of all Syrian citizens, a new constitution, economic reform and an overhaul of the country’s notorious security services.
“The roadmap gives us the hope after all that has happened in Syria,” says Radwan Ziadeh, a leading Syrian dissident and president of the Syrian Expert House, the group that prepared the roadmap. Available in Arabic and English, it is a rare document emerging from the revolutions across the Arab world.
Ziadeh, who was centrally involved in drafting the roadmap, views it as a bright spot at a time when “everyone lost hope with the revolution for dignity, human rights and democracy for all.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria, praised the roadmap in September as a “much needed initiative that could prove most useful to the negotiators in Geneva.”
Unfortunately, Geneva II ended in deadlock. No serious discussion of transition took place. Even more tragically there was no breakthrough on delivering humanitarian aid to Syrian cities besieged by Assad’s forces.
The situation has become so desperately chaotic that the UN recently announced it would no longer keep track of the death toll, which is estimated at over 130,000. Regime violence did not let up even during Geneva II. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that nearly 500 Syrians were killed by the regime during the talks.
Nonetheless, the Assad regime came to Geneva ready to portray itself as the victim. In his speech on the opening day of the conference, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem launched into a tirade against the “terrorists” threatening Syria. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon objected to both Muallem’s tone and disregard for time limits, and repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought to interrupt him.
Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was reportedly embarrassed by his Syrian ally and counterpart, but apparently not enough to press Assad to alter course. Until Moscow changes its unqualified material and political support for Assad, the violence is not likely to end, unless Assad himself is persuaded, for the sake of Syria, to relinquish power.
Still, amid the endless tragic news coming from all quarters of Syria, the transition roadmap remains an inspiration. There are Syrians who are genuinely committed to saving their country, eager to embarking on what will be a long, difficult path to end the war, establish peace and build a functioning democracy.
“The stepping down of the head of the existing regime, Bashar al-Assad, will mark the beginning of the transition in Syria,” states the Syria Transition Roadmap. That goal is advocated by the US and other world powers. Washington should endorse the Syrian Transition Roadmap now.
Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned only two months after Geneva I, largely out of frustration with Assad. Leaders like Assad “tend to believe in the world they create,” Annan told The New York Times at the time. In Assad’s world, it is outsiders and terrorists who cause Syria’s problems, and terrorists come in all ages, including the first group of children arrested and tortured in March 2011, the incident that launched the uprising against the regime.
Brahimi is not yet giving up. With the support of Ban Ki-moon he is eager to bring the parties back together in Geneva soon. With a mounting death toll, millions of refugees testing the patience and resources of Syria’s immediate neighbors and other countries, and Syria’s education and healthcare systems in urgent need of repair, a heavy dose of realism is needed. The roadmap, a proposal by Syrians for Syrians, is worthy of consideration.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.