What could go wrong?
Tucked away in Fred Hof’s latest post on Syria, is an extraordinary condemnation of the Obama adminsitration’s ineptitude on Syria:
The Obama administration did not anticipate that the Assad regime would use the Washington-Moscow agreement on chemical weapons as a free pass to terrorize civilian populations. When the administration pressed for the setting of a conference date, it did not intend for the regime to treat that date as an interim finish line, as it sprints for military advantage with the critical assistance of Iranian-raised militias and Russian rearmament. When the administration urged the nationalist Syrian opposition to commit itself to attending the conference, it had no inkling that Islamist rivals to the West’s opposition of choice would humiliate the recipients of US meals-ready-to-eat, medical kits, and pickup trucks.
None of these setbacks was difficult to anticipate. Many commenters wrote about how the chemical weapons agreement would make the Asad regime an essential partner to the international community and stabilize its hold on power. The speed-up of military efforts is canonical behavior before peace negotiations. The takeover of the opposition by Islamist forces had been widely anticipated, even if the particular seizure of supplies was not.
Now let’s anticipate the possible negative consequences of the January 22 (Montreux) and January 23 (Geneva) meetings, assuming that the Syrian opposition follows much Western advice and goes into them with a sincere list of nationalist figures, heavily loaded with minorities and not too offensive to the Russians, to staff the post-Asad regime. What might go wrong?
First, that list will be just the start of the bargaining. The regime will try to knock out any truly independent personalities and ensure that its own stalwarts, and Russian surrogates, are provided pride of place, especially the various security services as well as the Defense and Interior Ministries. Second, Bashar will not agree to step aside. As Fred notes, there is no indication that Moscow is prepared to make him do so. Even less so Iran. Third, the regime will insist on the scheduled spring presidential elections as a vital step in the future political process. Bashar controls every aspect of the electoral machinery, which has never overseen a competitive election for president and will surely not do so under current circumstances.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has nominal Western support as the political representative of the Syrian people, will be only one of several organizations on the anti-Asad side of the table at Montreux/Geneva. If it stays at the table and compromises under American and other pressure, it will lose support and become, even more than at present, a target of extremist attacks. If it walks out and others stay, the Asad regime will have succeeded in putting the blame for failure on the leading opposition organization while splitting it from those willing to compromise. Either way, we can anticipate intensification of the regime offensive as soon as Geneva is over.
This is not a pretty picture. It looks like a lose-lose for the Syrian opposition, which is therefore busily and understandably claiming that the meeting won’t go ahead unless its condition–that it implement the Geneva I transition plan by having Bashar step aside–is fulfilled. But American pressure will be strong. And there is a growing suspicion that the Americans are listening to those who claim that Bashar should stay as a bulwark against extremism.
The Americans are also busy pressuring the UN not to invite the Iranians to the January talks. This too is a mistake, as their support for Hizbollah and Bashar has to stop if there is to be even a ceasefire in Syria. Holding the meeting without Tehran signals once again that the international community is not prepared to get rid of Bashar al Asad.
A lot can go wrong at Geneva. Judging from past performance, it likely will.