On January 17 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call on the Geneva II peace conference with Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, and Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center. The two experts discussed the Syria peace talks, their regional dynamics, and their international implications.

Listen to the call.

TOM CARVER: Good morning. My name is Tom Carver, I’m Vice President of Communications at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC, and this is a media call on the Geneva II conference which kicks off next Wednesday on January 22nd. I have with me on the line our new director of our Middle East Center, Lina Khatib, we’re very pleased to have, who recently joined us from Stanford, and Yezid Sayigh who is a senior associate in the center who’s a well known expert to many of you on Arab militaries, and particularly on Syria. I’ll just kick it off with a quick question to you guys, Yezid and Lina, maybe you could just tell us what you feel is the main purpose of this conference now, because the goal posts have obviously been shifting, what do you see as the main goal that the West, at least, want to get out of it? Is it to try to set up some sort of transitional process? Or is it simply to stop the fighting. Maybe Lina, you start.

LINA KHATIB: Well, I think I would have to agree with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that Geneva II is only the start of a process and not the end of a process. I think stopping the fighting is a key objective of Geneva II, and in an ideal situation it would lay down the foundations for establishing a transitional government. However, I’m not confident that a transitional government as such would be the outcome of the Geneva conference itself.

CARVER: Yezid?

YEZID SAYIGH: I’d agree with that. I think that the possibility that Geneva can deliver an agreement, certainly not in its opening session, that’s a forgone conclusion that that cannot happen. The real question is, what will the external actors, and particularly the United States and Russia, what do they plan to do immediately after. They must understand and expect that they’re not going to get substantive negotiation. If they bring Syrian regime delegation and an opposition delegation to the table, who don’t intend to engage genuinely in negotiation, then they must have a plan B. Now here’s the tricky part. If Plan B is to do perfectly valid things such as to promote access for humanitarian relief and local or generalized ceasefires as confidence building measures, these are certainly very valuable things. It would be great if progress is achieved on them. However, what they obscure is the fact that the US and Russia remain quite far apart in terms of the substantive issues of what exactly will the transitional power sharing look like, what exactly will be the sequencing of different phases, including specifically the role of the shadow asset, and that’s the Achilles heel of this process at the moment.

CARVER: Okay, we’ve got quite a few people on the call, does anyone want to jump in with a question to Lina and Yezid?

PATRICK MARTIN: Hi, it’s Patrick Martin here from the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. Who do you expect, Lina and Yezid, who do you really expect from the opposition to show up next Wednesday?

SAYIGH: Well, certainly if anyone does show up, and they’re supposed to vote on this today in the National Coalition, then it’s going to be only people from the National Coalition, since the National Coordination Body has said that it’s not going to attend, and since the US and the Russians didn't agree on a tripartite delegation also including the supreme counsel of Kurdistan. So it looks like if anyone shows up it will be one part at least of the National Coalition. However, I think what’s most important there really is establishing that there is a dialogue between two Syrian parties, one is the regime, the other is the opposition, whoever that is represented by. And so in future meetings, as these issues are resolved, who gets to take part, the National Coalition, the National Coalition Body, the Kurds, there is already a slot there called the Opposition, and potentially a varying delegation will show up at any given time. But it does allow some scope for future development on that.

CARVER: Lina?

KHATIB: Well, I think what Yezid has said makes a lot of sense in the sense that it would be impossible to expect an opposition that has been highly fragmented since the start of this year in uprising to be fully represented at the Geneva II conference. And I think perhaps having more modest aims such as getting some representation of the opposition at this stage is a more realistic scenario.

DONNA ABU NASR: Yezid, this is Donna Abu Nasser of Bloomberg. So basically you’re saying a weak opposition attending Montre and Geneva would be better than no opposition? Because the opposition as it is, it’s fragmented, it’s been flip-flopping, it’s almost making Assad look more attractive. 

SAYIGH: That’s true, and of course the problem for the Syrian National Coalition specifically is that it needs to be part of a negotiation process, because otherwise what use is its claim to represent and be recognized as the representative of the Syrian people and of the Syrian opposition. So it needs to be there, but going there is already breaking it apart, has already drawn many rebel factions away from it, so attending maybe the death knell for the Syrian Coalition. However, the real thing right now I think is that Geneva II, or specifically the meeting on the 22nd of January is not really any more about the two Syrian camps talking. It’s about getting the external actors which are concerned with getting somewhere together. The regime and the opposition will show up, they need to be present for the external actors to be able to say, “Well, look, we’ve actually got them in one room.” Whether they then say much or do much is right now actually not most important. Neither of them is ready to negotiate at the moment; neither of them is bringing genuine concrete proposals for transition to the table, and therefore this is really going to be all about what the external actors do next with this opening.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: This is Borzou Daragahi of The Financial Times. I just wanted to ask, if I may, about the proposal today by Walid al-Muallem regarding the ceasefire and a prisoner exchange. Do you consider that a legitimate proposal or just another sort of political diplomatic feint ahead of the talks to build up international goodwill?

SAYIGH: On that I think the proposal fits in with what the regime seems to be trying to do, which is to shift to deflect the conference focus more towards issues like the chemical weapons dismantling and the issue of fighting terrorism and Jihadism. So I think maybe through their discussions with the Russians the regime have understood that they need to be clever as they were last August/September in turning a potentially dangerous situation in which they’re on the spot after use of chemical weapons, into one where they start to make constructive proposals. And so by proposing a prisoner exchange, and by proposing a ceasefire in Aleppo, they’re picking up on this idea of confidence building, making it their own, instead of something that they sort of submit to under pressure. And therefore they look good, and the Russians will look once again like they’re the ones who are coming up with the creative ideas that move us forward, allowing the regime of course to look respectable and therefore not necessarily offer much more on the actual power sharing issues.

KHATIB: And if I may add, this was not the first time during the conflict that the Syrian government has proposed a ceasefire of one form or another. Actually, the situation on the ground in Aleppo makes it very difficult for a ceasefire to actually be achieved, and I think the Syrian government knows that. It is very easy for them to propose a ceasefire; however, it’s not going to be easy for them to implement, but then they can always argue that, you know, they wanted to, they had confidence that a ceasefire would be a positive step, however Jihadi terrorists prevented that from happening, which would again bolster the framework of countering terrorism that the Syrian regime has been using to frame the current conflict.

SANGWON YOON: Hi, this is Sangwon Yoon from Bloomberg News in New York. If I may ask, going back to your answer to the previous question, what is the purpose of Moltoy meeting or Geneva II if in current time we don’t know if the opposition is going to come or not, and if on the 22nd if it’s about the outside parties minus the principle regime and the opposition, what is the aim here? It seems like there’s disagreement about the fundamentals of Geneva communiqué to start with. So what would the outside parties – what are they seeking to achieve by saying we’ve brought together opposition and regime in one room? And a weak opposition at that.

KHATIB: Geneva II has become the platform through which rival political actors are asserting their legitimacy and influence. So when we’re talking about external actors, obviously we’re not just talking about the United States and Russia, even though they are the main players, we are also talking about regional actors such as in the Gulf. Both the United States and Russia want to in a way use Geneva to showcase their diplomatic skills and influence in the region, and at the same time we can also say that Saudi Arabia, for example, through calling for the exclusion of Iran from Geneva II, is actually motivated by the desire to deny Iran international acknowledgement of its international role while bolstering its own. So in addition to the humanitarian aims and the status aims of Geneva II, there is also the kind of international relations dynamic to the conference that we should not forget.

AUDIENCE: Just a follow up on that, it just seems like the main purpose of Geneva II, which is to discuss political and intentional government, that has completely been sidelined and it’s more about the Syrian government talks about how they need to discuss the rise in extremism, although for the western parties it appears it’s a very frustrating situation where in the beginning of the conflict, the extremists and the Islamists didn't have much of a hold, but it has consistently risen, and they attribute that to Assad facilitating this. So who close are we – we’re nowhere close to talking about a political end to the civil war in Syria.

KHATIB: Unfortunately not, no, we’re nowhere close to seeing a political end. And as you say, the conflict did not start as a sectarian conflict or a problem with Jihadist terrorists in Syria. If anything, the regime had used this narrative very early on and enabled the narrative to actually become reality. And there is evidence to suggest that today groups like ISIS are being used directly or indirectly by the regime to support this narrative. So we have reached a stage where the presence of groups like ISIS is becoming very useful for the Syrian regime, and the Syrian regime has unfortunately succeeded in imposing this narrative about fighting terrorism on the Syrian conflict. And by that it has hijacked what should be the more urgent objectives of the Geneva II conference.

SAYIGH: If we move aside from who’s at fault, let’s say, and then take that out of the picture for the moment, I just want to add that the western parties in particular, western governments and the friends of Syria haven’t really done what they could to avoid this situation. Let me put it in this way – there was a moment in 2012 in which Geneva 1 was produced when maybe there was some soap for pushing forward with it, and when ____ hit the ground and the balance between Jihadist fighters and non-Jihadis etcetera was much more favorable, I think that the friends of Syria as well as Russians, for very different reasons, failed to push forward at that time, and they’re now partly trying to pursue more or less the same approach sort of saying, “This is a bad regime and the Russians really need to work out where their interest lies,” in order to go back and make a success of a framework that they walked away from about a year and a half ago. So there is a dilemma here, and there has been a failing of western policy, and that I think is part of the answer to your question. Yes, Geneva now should be about the political issues, but beyond actually saying so, I don’t see that the US has really invested in achieving the same, what this sort of aim really required for the last couple of years.

SAM DAGHER: This is Sam Dagher with The Wall Street Journal, I have a question for Yezid, if I may. Just going back to what you said earlier about if the opposition attends that would be their death knell, and if you can elaborate a little bit on that. So are you expecting them not to attend then? They’re meeting in Istanbul right now. And also, what do you think the position of the Muslim Brotherhood is, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood?

SAYIGH: Well, I was referring not to the opposition as a whole, but specifically to the Syrian National Coalition, which has been extremely weak politically since its birth and has been unable to take the initiative or to demonstrate credibility on the ground to get the local administration functioning etcetera. And so it’s reached a point of decrepitude, basically, where it’s all but defunct. Now, it’s in a situation where it needs to demonstrate its political relevance by doing what it should be able to do best, which is to negotiate on behalf of its people. But ironically because it’s been so bad at getting to this point, at making up its mind, at developing political proposals to put on the table, that now the act of attending Geneva threatens to tear it apart and of course threatens the loss of legitimacy with the fighting rebel groups. My sense frankly is that they have a small chance of surviving if they show up at Geneva, less than 50 percent, but it’s their only option, because not going leaves them in a position where they simply have nothing in particular to offer. They don’t offer military command, they don’t offer political direction, they don’t offer administrative support on the ground, and if they can’t get their act together and show up at Geneva and maneuver in a very difficult and challenging situation admittedly, then they’ve really got little claim to go on at all. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is at the moment sort of tiptoeing between basically what Lina referred to, the preferences of the regional backers, in particular, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to play their own little politics, their only little games with the Syrian opposition. And part of the resignation of something between 41 and 44 members of the National Coalition last week has to do with behind the scenes maneuvering, once again involving Qatars and the Saudis. So the Muslim Brotherhood has positioned themselves where they’re part of the block that supposedly is opposed to going to Geneva, they’ve said this openly, but at the same time have refused to burn bridges with the faction under Jerba that wants to attend. So there’s something of a three-way game going on at the moment that hasn’t been resolved. It’s certainly not going to improve the political fortunes of any of them I think.

DAVID IGNATIUS: This is David Ignatius from The Washington Post. I wonder if you could outline an alternative strategy for the Syrian opposition that you think might be more effective than the very uncertain strategies that they’ve been pursuing to date, and a specific request that you think the opposition should make to the United States and the other friends of Syria that would break what appears to be a diplomatic and military stalemate.

SAYIGH: I think the time is long tone when the opposition could achieve that kind of political traction. There were all sorts of things they should have been doing from the start, addressing themselves directly to those parts of the Syrian state apparatus, and of society, including the Alawi community but others, in ways that might have persuaded them to break away from the regime. They’ve failed to do that. I don’t think there’s much they can do today because the armed rebellion represents one very specific part of Syrian society and has been unable to attract large parts of the urban population, middle classes etcetera, that remain either on the fence or unwilling to cross over. So we’ve got this sort of deep division that I think is no longer bridgeable for the opposition. What this suggests, I’m afraid, is that first of all the regime is not in a position of declining, or at least not declining as fast as the opposition is. The regime won’t win, but it is really, well, to put it bluntly, if we move into a situation of local ceasefires and local truces it’s going to be the regime every time that gains a little bit more than the opposition gains. And come six months from now, the regime will certainly be in an even stronger position than it is today relative to the opposition, which as we see is undergoing tremendous internal divisions, and I don’t see those going away any time soon. Bottom line is I don’t see that the opposition can do much right now at all. Ideally, we could come up with all sorts of suggestions; in reality, I think it’s too late for them.

CARVER: Lina, did you want to add anything?

KHATIB: Yes, what I want to add to that is from the very beginning the western community as well as the Syrian opposition abroad have been disconnected from the national coordination committees within Syria. And the international community has found it in a way much easier to deal with the opposition abroad than to reach out to these local groups within Syria, even though those local groups are still engaged in hands on work that has earned them a degree of trust among I would say a significant proportion of the population. I’m not saying that the national coordination committees better represent the Syrians; they just represent a significant proportion of the opposition that should be taken into consideration. I think one of the biggest problems for the Syrian National Council and after that the Coalition, is that they have been seen as disconnected from the reality on the ground. So what can be done right now, but which will be a very long and complex process, is an attempt at engaging Syrians on the ground in dialogue with members of the Coalition abroad. But this cannot happen as an initiative started by the Coalition alone, it has to be supported by the international community as well. But this will not achieve any concrete results in the short term. What I’m saying is it’s a trust-building measure that should have happened a long time ago, and should happen regardless of where we are today, because the alternative is a continuation of the conflict and a transformation of the Syrian crisis into a hybrid of the Lebanese civil war and the Palestinian problem.

RAMI RUHAYEM: Rami Ruhayem from the BBC in Beirut. Just a question about the comments of the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, about the need to recalibrate Turkish policy towards Syria. Just a couple of days ago I think he made them. Do you think there is likely to be a serious change in Turkish policy with an effect not just on Geneva but also on the situation on the ground in Northern Syria?

SAYIGH: I’ll just say that Gul has of course differed with Erdogan in the past on policy on Syria, and also importantly on policy towards Iran. I mean, I heard Gul say two or three months ago perhaps Iran had to be a part of a political solution, for instance. So I think that anything that Gul says needs to be seen in the context of his own differences with Erdogan, among other things. And of course the reality that much of the Turkish Republic, even more so than a year ago, is opposed to deeper involvement in Turkey. Clearly there are a number of parties inside Turkey as well as outside, and I would think the US is one of them, that are worried about just what Turkey’s doing about the flow of Jihadis into northern Syria. So I think there’s a bit of a Pandora’s box there of issues that are bubbling up to do with internal acupa politics as well as concerns their relationship with the Kurds etcetera, the outcome of which I think is that although Erdogan still seems to be determined to battle his corner, to fight for his corner and maintain a certain policy on Syria, I think this is coming under a lot of pressure and Gul may be signaling in a sense a more pragmatic approach that positions Turkey to accept whatever outcome might come out of the Geneva process.

TRUDY RUBIN: Trudy Rubin, listening to this whole discussion, it’s almost like in neon lights the summary would be Assad has won. He may not have won in a total sense, but that what John Kerry said yesterday about the basis for Geneva is still Geneva 1 – I mean this is patently false. So is this the conclusion that we should draw from this, that there really is no way of unseating Assad, that he can hold a fake election if he so chooses, and that the fighting will go on on the ground?

KHATIB: Unfortunately due to a number of factors, Assad seems to have won, I’m not going to say the battle, because it’s been a series of battles. He’s won a series of battles but he hasn’t yet won the war. The game is not over yet. There is still a chance to work on a transition in Syria while forcing Assad to go, because the alternative, which is for Assad to stay, can only be catastrophic for Syria in the long run. I cannot imagine a scenario whereby you can have any form of stability or reform with Assad in power. So although he has managed to win this game, he has managed to spin the conflict into one about counter-terrorism, complacency unfortunately by several western powers has enabled that, inattention to the rise of Jihadism in the region as a result of the Syrian conflict has enabled that. However, it’s not too late to address each of these issues and to think of a transitional scenario for Syria not involving Assad. However, the key problem is that until now, nobody has put forward a strategy for this transition. So everybody talks about getting rid of Assad, but neither the Gulf countries nor the western powers have actually sat down and started thinking of a road map to achieve that. And I think for me, this is what everybody involved, all the stakeholders, should be focused on next.

AUDIENCE: Could I just follow up on that? What is there for a strategy for transition? We haven’t discussed at all the military side of this, but if the West will not put – or the United States will not put some military weapons into the game, if it’s too late for that, if it’s left to the Saudis who clearly are not capable of creating a coherent rebel army, then where is the leverage that would lead to Assad’s exit?

SAYIGH: Yes, well, it’s not just the military. The military in a way is the one angle where Assad can sort of win completely in that his army is stretched, they’ve certainly lasted a lot more than outsiders expected and the rebels claimed, they still have the edge – but they’re over stretched in manpower in ways that mean they can continue to hold their own and keep the rebels on the defensive indefinitely but never achieve the sort of preponderance even with Russian technology and hardware that would allow them – or Iranian support for that matter – that would allow them, the regime army, to achieve a decisive breakthrough. So that isn’t I think the critical problem. It’s that you’ve got millions of Syrians who are displaced, who are refugees, who are dependent on food aid etcetera in Syria who are somehow expected by everyone else on either side to just remain a passive number of X million this, Y million that, and that somehow they aren’t going to start making a difference to how things unfold on the ground. Whereas what we see is that the regime tactics of starve or surrender in Mabami, in Berezzi, Yerzabidani and other areas are actually producing outcomes where local populations, including local rebels, are allowed to sort of stay where they are as long as they raise the regime flag, the Syrian flag, hand over heavy weapons, and in return receive food supplies. If this is a sort of trend that builds up, we may find that the sort of transition we’re talking about is not the one that’s on the table in Geneva, but rather one where the opposition – to go back to the original question – where the opposition, if it’s to have a future, needs to think of, it has to think about how to deal with a situation where the regime sort of wins in the way that Lina was describing, but where the whole nature of the conflict and the form of confrontation shifts very fundamentally. We’re talking about, in other words, a sort of post-conflict phase of a different kind of conflict or different kinds of contestation. And I’m not sure that the opposition is yet intellectually in that place or ready to deal with it, let alone most of us.

AUDIENCE: You mean where the country is partitioned?

SAYIGH: No, no, no, I just mean that the regime basically has the upper hand and we may find ourselves in 6 months, or 12 months, or 18 months in a position where it is clearly in control or dominant in much of the country or those parts of the country that it’s held on to so far, and the opposition has to start finding new ways of dealing with that particular reality. In other words, the whole Syrian conflict, the tragedy is that we went from zero political organization and mass mobilization to armed struggle and rebellion along with the peaceful revolt, and the opposition never had the time to grow, to mature, to go through interim phases that are typical of most opposition movements elsewhere. And they may now have to wait for a few more years while they rebuild and go through those interim phases that they never went through.

CARVER: Okay, we are just over 30 minutes so I think we will draw this to a close. Thank you very much for participating. Of course, you can always contact Lina or Yezid one on one if you have questions or you want to do an interview. The details are on the website, or Clara, our media manager here, can send them to you. So thank you, guys, very much indeed for taking part, and we will probably have another call after the outcome, if there is an outcome, of Geneva next week, but for the moment that’s it. Thanks.