Will Geneva talks lead right back to Assad’s 2011 reforms?

Sharmine Narwani
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, the Guardian, Asia Times Online, Salon.com, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, BRICS Post and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @snarwani
Syria's President Bashar Assad. © SANA
Syrian peace talks have already stalled. The opposition refused to be in the same room as the government delegation, while the latter blamed opposition ‘preconditions’ and the organizers’ inability to produce a ‘list of designated terrorists’.

The UN’s special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has now promised talks will reconvene on February 25, but how will he achieve this?

So much has shifted on the global political stage and in the Syrian military theater since this negotiation process first began gaining steam.

In just the past few weeks, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies have recaptured key areas in Latakia, Idlib, Daraa, Homs and Aleppo, and are making their way up to the Turkish border, cutting off supply lines and exits for opposition militants along the way.

While analysts and politicians on both sides of the fence have warned that a ‘military solution’ to the Syrian crisis is not feasible, the SAA’s gains are starting to look very much like one. And with each subsequent victory, the ability for the opposition to raise demands looks to be diminished.

Already, western sponsors of the talks have as much as conceded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue to play a role in any future government - a slap in the face to the foreign-backed Syrian opposition that have demanded his exit.

And the long list of deliverables in peace talks yet to come - transitional governance, ceasefires, constitutional reform, and elections - are broad concepts, vague enough to be shaped to advantage by the dominant military power on the ground.

The shaping of post-conflict political landscapes invariably falls to the victor – not the vanquished. And right now, Geneva looks to be the place where this may happen, under the watch of many of the states that once threw their weight – weapons, money, training, support – behind the Syrian ‘opposition.’

So here’s a question: As the military landscape inside Syria continues to move in the government’s favor, will a final deal look very much different than the 2011 reforms package offered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

Assad’s 2011 reforms

In early 2011, the Syrian government launched a series of potentially far-reaching reforms, some of these unprecedented since the ascendance of the Baath party to power in 1963.

Arriving in Damascus in early January 2012 – my third trip to Syria, and my first since the crisis began – I was surprised to find restrictions on Twitter and Facebook already lifted, and a space for more open political discourse underway.

That January, less than ten months into the crisis, around 5,000 Syrians were dead, checkpoints and security crackdowns abounded, while themes such as “the dictator is killing his own people” and “the protests are peaceful” still dominated western headlines.

Four years later, with the benefit of hindsight, many of these things can be contextualized. The ‘protests’ were not all ‘peaceful’ – and casualties were racking up equally on both sides. We see this armed opposition more clearly now that they are named Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS. But back in early 2012, these faces were obfuscated – they were all called “peaceful protestors forced to take up arms against a repressive government.”

Nevertheless, in early 2011, the Syrian government began launching its reforms - some say only to placate restive populations; others saw it as an opportunity for Assad to shrug off the anti-reform elements in his government and finish what he intended to start in 2000’s ‘Damascus Spring.’

Either way, the reforms came hard and fast - some big, some small: decrees suspending almost five decades of emergency law that prohibited public gatherings, the establishment of a multi-party political system and terms limits for the presidency, the removal of Article 8 of the constitution that assigned the Baath party as “the leader of state and society,” citizenship approval for tens of thousands of Kurds, the suspension of state security courts, the removal of laws prohibiting the niquab, the release of prisoners, the granting of general amnesty for criminals, the granting of financial autonomy to local authorities, the removal of controversial governors and cabinet members, new media laws that prohibited the arrest of journalists and provided for more freedom of expression, dissolution of the cabinet, reducing the price of diesel, increasing pension funds, allocating housing, investment in infrastructure, opening up direct citizen access to provincial leaders and cabinet members, the establishment of a presidential committee for dialogue with the opposition – and so forth.

But almost immediately, push back came from many quarters, usually accompanied by the ‘Arab Spring’ refrain: “it’s too late.”

But was it?

Western governments complained about reforms not being implemented. But where was the time – and according to whose time-frame? When the Assad government forged ahead with constitutional reforms and called for a nationally-held referendum to gain citizen buy-in, oppositionists sought a boycott and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the referendum “phony” and “a cynical ploy.”

Instead, just two days earlier, at a meeting in Tunis, Clinton threw her significant weight behind the unelected, unrepresentative, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC): “We do view the Syrian National Council as a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change.”

And when, in May 2012, Syria held parliamentary elections – the first since the constitution revamp – the US State Department called the polls: “bordering on ludicrous.”

But most insidious of all the catch-phrases and slogans employed to undermine the Syrian state, was the insistence that reforms were “too late” and “Assad must go.” When, in the evolution of a political system, is it too late to try to reform it? When, in the evolution of a political system, do external voices, from foreign capitals, get to weigh in on a head of state more loudly than its own citizens?

According to statements made by two former US policymakers to McClatchy News: “The goal had been to ‘ratchet up’ the Syria response incrementally, starting with U.S. condemnation of the violence and eventually suggesting that Assad had lost legitimacy.”

“The White House and the State Department both – and I include myself in this – were guilty of high-faluting rhetoric without any kind of hard policy tools to make the rhetoric stick,” confessed Robert Ford, former US Ambassador to Syria.

An analysis penned by veteran Middle East correspondent Michael Jansen at the onset of the talks in Geneva last week ponders the point: “The Syrian crisis might have been resolved in 2011 if US president Barack Obama had not declared on August 18th that year that his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad had to 'step aside.'”

Were the additional 250,000 Syrian deaths worth those empty slogans? Or might reforms, in Syrian hands, have been worth a try?

Domestic dissent, Assad and reforms

The story inside Syria, within the dissident community, still varied greatly during my January 2012 trip. But with the exception of one, Fayez Sara, who went on to eventually leave the country and join the SNC, Syrian dissidents with whom I met unanimously opposed sanctions, foreign intervention and the militarization of the conflict.

Did they embrace the reforms offered up in 2011? Mostly not – the majority thought reforms would be “cosmetic” and meaningless without further fundamental changes, much of this halted by the growing political violence. When Assad invited them to participate in his constitutional reform deliberations, did these dissidents step up? No – many refused to engage directly with the government, probably calculating that “Assad would go” and reluctant to shoulder the stigma of association.

But were these reforms not a valuable starting point, at least? Political systems don’t evolve overnight – they require give-and-take and years of uphill struggle.

Aref Dalila, one of the leaders of the ‘Damascus Spring’ who spent eight years in prison, told me: “The regime consulted with me and others between March and May and asked our opinion. I told them there has to be very serious reforms immediately and not just for show, but they preferred to go by other solutions.”

Bassam al-Kadi, who was imprisoned for seven years in the 1990s, managed to find one upside to reforms:

Speaking about the abolishment of the state security courts in early 2011, Kadi said: “Since 1973 until last May, it was actually a court outside of any laws and it was the strong arm of the regime. All trials held after abolishing this court have taken place in civilian courts. Sometimes the intelligence apparatus intervenes but in most cases the judge behaves according to his or her opinion. Hundreds of my friends who were arrested in the past few months, most were released within one or two weeks.”

This reform, by the way, took place a mere few months before Jordan’s constitutional reforms added another security layer - the state military courts - for which it was promptly lauded.

Hassan Abdel Azim, head of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) which included 15 opposition parties, took a different view: “Our point of view is that such reforms can only take place when violence stops against protestors…But since the regime tries to enforce its reforms, the result will only be partial reforms that enhances its image but not lead to real change.”

The NCC went on to have a short-lived alliance with the foreign-based SNC which fell apart over disagreements on “non-Arab foreign intervention.”

Louay Hussein who headed the Tayyar movement and spent seven years in prison when he was 22 (and recently as well), told me that January: “We consider Assad responsible for everything that’s happened but we are not prepared to put the country in trouble…In March, we wanted what the regime is giving now (reforms). But when the system started using live bullets we wanted to change it and change it quickly. But after all this time we have to reconsider our strategy.”

And the list goes on. The views ranged from dissidents who “like Assad, but hate the system” to those who wanted a wholesale change that was arrived at through a consultative process – but definitely not foreign intervention. Eighteen months later when I revisited some of these people, their views had transformed quite dramatically in light of the escalation of political violence. Even the ones who blamed the government for this escalation seemed to put their arms around the state, as nationalists first and foremost.

Had the conflict not taken on this stark foreign-backed dimension and become so heavily militarized, they may have expended their energies on pushing at the limits of reforms already on the table.

How can Geneva transform Syria?

First on the table in Geneva is the establishment of a transitional process that gets the two sides working on common governance. On a parallel track, demilitarization is on the menu - which basically consists of organizing ceasefires throughout Syria. The transitional team will then work on hammering out a new constitution, with elections to be held within 18 months.

That sounds a bit like the process already underway in Syria in 2011 and 2012.

Certainly, the opposition believes it has a stronger hand today than back in 2011, supported as it is by the UN-sponsored Geneva process. But the difficulties will start the moment decisions need to be made about which opposition participates in the transitional body, if they can even manage to convince the Syrian government - now racking up military victories every week - that it needs to relinquish a chunk of its authority to this new entity.

It is the kind of ‘opposition’ that eventually enters the transitional process that will help ultimately determine its outcome. Look for some Riyadh- and Turkish-backed opponents to be tossed by the wayside during this process.

With the introduction of Russian air power and qualitative military hardware last autumn, the Syrian army and its allies have gained critical momentum in the field.

So why would the Syrian state backtrack on that momentum to give up authority in Geneva? Even the expectation of this is illogical.

There is a growing consensus among Syria analysts that the Americans have ceded the Syrian theater to the Russians and Moscow’s allies. Washington has barely registered any meaningful objections to Russian airstrikes over the past months, apart from some sound bites about hitting ‘moderate rebels’ and not focusing enough on ISIS.

Part of the US problem is that, without any clear cut Syria strategy, it has found itself neck-deep in this crisis without any means to extricate itself from the uncomfortable dependencies of thousands of rebel militants, and the demands of increasingly belligerent allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

They Russians offer that opportunity – like they did in 2013 by taking the Syrian chemical weapons program off the table - and it looks like Washington is grabbing it with both hands right now. It is likely that Moscow waited to intervene in the Syrian quagmire only when it was absolutely sure the US needed an exit – any earlier, and the Americans were still playing both sides and all cards.

For Geneva to move forward, the participants are going to have to make some awkward commitments. Firstly, the batch of Islamists-for-hire that currently makes up the opposition will need to be finessed – or torn apart – to include a broad swathe of Syrian ethnic groups, sects, political viewpoints and… women.

Secondly, all parties to the talks need to agree on which militants in the Syrian theater are going to make that “terrorist list.” This was a clear deliverable outlined in Vienna, and it hasn’t been done. This all-important list will make clear which militants are to be part of a future ceasefire, and which ones will be ‘fair game.’

After all, there can be NO ceasefires until we know who is a designated terrorist and who can be a party to ground negotiations.

I suspect, however, that this terrorist list has been neglected for good reason. It has spared western rebel-sponsors the discomfort of having to face the wrath of their militants, while allowing time for the Russians and Syrians to mow these groups into the ground. Hence the stream of recent victories – and the accompanying timid reaction from Washington.

As the balance of power shifts further on the ground, we may see a much-altered ‘Geneva.’ Will it genuinely beget a political process, will the players at the table change, will the ‘political solution’ be entirely manufactured behind the curtains… only to be offered up to an unsuspecting public as a victory wrenched from a ‘bad regime?’

Because, right now, Syria would be fortunate to have those 2011 reforms on that table, the rapt attention of the global community encouraging them forward, weapons at rest. A quarter million Syrians could have been spared, hundreds of towns, cities and villages still intact, millions of displaced families in their own homes.

Perhaps Geneva can bring those reforms back, wrapped in a prettier package this time, so we can clap our hands and declare ourselves satisfied.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.