Analysis: Coming peace talks on Syria are likely doomed before they start

Experts say deal with Iran could sink upcoming conference; US Jewish leader who met secretly with Assad says president told him he won’t step down.

Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The ‘Geneva II’ peace conference scheduled to be held in January, which is seeking to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, is unlikely to have any real results.
The opposition remains hopelessly divided and real power remains with the Islamist fighters who do not want any agreement, especially one that would keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
Assad and its ally Iran are unlikely to compromise.
With their new-found confidence – gained from the agreement with world powers over Syria’s chemical weapons and the nuclear negotiations with Iran – they are unlikely to give in.
Most analysts who spoke to The Jerusalem Post expressed pessimism over the chances for any political solution.
“Assad told me before the fighting started, that ‘if it ever comes here, I will never step down,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, who made a secret trip in December 2010 to meet with Assad, told the Post that Assad said even if he and his family leave safely, the remaining Alawites would be massacred if he resigned.
“Knowing his mindset, even now, the likelihood of him stepping down is very remote,” added Hoenlein.
But he is not sure Assad could step down even if he wanted to. “I am not sure the Iranians would let him do it.”
Hoenlein said he has spoken to people in the Syrian opposition, but “the truth is we don’t know who speaks for them.” Many of the fighters on the ground in Syria have no relations to the people promoting the opposition in the West, he said.
Hoenlein also believes it is possible a deal was made during the negotiations with Iran giving them a seat at the table during the peace talks on Syria.
Kirk Sowell, the Ammanbased principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, told the Post “the opposition is now pretty much united against Geneva II. The Syrian Opposition Coalition had indicated some willingness to participate conditionally, but it looks like they have realized that is a losing game.”
“No one representing any real fighting force will be there,” he added. “The core Islamist force, the newly formed Islamic Front, certainly will not participate. They’d probably only be open to a conference framed around how a transfer of power is carried out, and not one involving Assad in any way.”
At least half of the rebel forces come from the Islamic Front, said Sowell, while the more moderate Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army is probably no more than 15-20% of fighting forces despite their claims that they are more numerous.
“There is also a rival ‘Free Syrian Army’ led by Riyadh al-Asaad, but his group probably only has 10-15% of total fighting forces as well,” said Sowell, and the remaining forces are either al-Qaida type groups or local free-standing groups.
Max Abrahms, an expert on insurgency and terrorism at Northeastern University in Boston, told the Post that “from the US perspective, Geneva 2 seems destined to fail.”
“The Assad regime is far more unified than the opposition, which remains fractured,” he said. “Important groups within the opposition refuse to work together or to even participate in negotiations.
This political impasse favors not only Assad, but also the most radical elements within the opposition – namely, Islamist groups over more secular ones, which have steadily gained the upper hand on the battlefield through superior organization.”
Prof. Alexander Bligh, director of the Middle East Research Center at Ariel University, told the Post that Iran and Syria are now equipped with international agreements that allow them to continue with whatever activity they are doing in the region.
The agreement over Syria’s chemical weapons is limited only to chemical weapons, said Bligh, thus allowing the Syrian regime to continue its civil war using other means as well as continue cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah. The same, he said, is true with Iran, which will continue to enrich uranium at a low level and interfere in the region.
“Assad and Iran are the winners in the regional equation at this point,” he said. In fact, Assad and his allies may have gained more confidence to attack the rebels in a more ferocious way, said Bligh. He points out that Syria might even try to provoke Israel in a way similar to the shots fired at Israel on Monday in the Golan. This could bring Iran into the arena.
Iran could even have Hezbollah remove its forces from Syria to concentrate on fighting against Israel, said Bligh. This could be a face-saving way for Hezbollah to withdraw from the Syrian war, where it has suffered many casualties, he said.
But the other option, he said could even be for Iran to use the issue to “attack Israel in a preemptive strike.” This option, he said, should not be overlooked.