On January 20 and 22, Middle East watchers will be riveted on two different conference venues in Geneva or thereabouts.
The first meeting will concern itself with the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The five Permanent Members of the Security Council, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France plus Germany and Iran agreed on a deal Jan 12. It will be watched for six months. The same deal, in a somewhat raw form, had actually been announced in November. Technical details had to be filled in. This was accomplished Sunday.
Coming Monday, the process of implementation of the agreement begins. This will be simultaneously accompanied by a “corresponding” lifting of sanctions. The six-month period has been divided into 180 days.
On each day, or week, you give so much and take so much. Of course, there will be accusations of the scales being tipped one way or the other. But Secretary of State John Kerry is very determined this time.
The second event is a full blown conference known famously as Geneva II, focused on Syria.
Geneva I was held in June 2012, a little over a year after the conflict began. It was largely a process led by governments. A concept of a “Syrian led”-process towards Geneva II emerged. This resulted in rapid multiplication of insurgent groups inside Syria, some so brutal as to challenge credulity. The anxiety was to cobble together some kind of an opposition to President Assad. So, more murder and mayhem including the destruction of the great mosque in Aleppo followed.
The war dragged on and on. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan kept asking the Americans to give the rebel forces more time to alter the ground realities. Only then would a group emerge to give weight to an opposition delegation to Geneva II. Really, more power to the hardline Salafist groups which have recently proliferated in Iraq and Syria will result in a credible delegation to Geneva?
All those supporting the conflict from outside have, of course, succeeded in causing half of the population being internally displaced; millions of refugees pushed into neighboring countries; about 500,000 civilians killed, and hundreds of years old monument in one of the world’s great civilizations wantonly destroyed.
But they have not been able to obtain the trophy they most covet: the head of President Bashar al Assad. They were not able to affect regime change in Syria.
When all else failed, the chemical weapons attack in August 2013, allegedly by the regime, appeared to be the answer to their prayers. What President Obama described as a “red line” had been crossed. Missile attacks would follow.
Sergey Lavrov, the most respected Russian foreign minister since Andrei Gromyko, intervened creatively. Syria would voluntarily surrender its chemical weapons. The bargain would be straightforward: a political solution to the conflict involving all Syrian stake-holders.
For all their exertions, there is no coherent opposition yet to meet in Geneva to set into motion a “Syrian-led” process for peace. Free Syrian Army and the Transitional Council members are hopping from one host country to another in quest of a delegation for Geneva II.
Are these conditions propitious enough for Geneva II to be convened on Wednesday?
Broadly, the game is as follows: the US and Russia have agreed on two critical issues. That an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program should be given momentum for the next six months. There will then be a pause for stock taking before negotiating the next, long term, agreement.
They are also agreed on the Syrian conflict being brought to an end through a political process.
On both these approaches, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria are more or less satisfied. But Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and France are in various degrees of disappointment.
Th dream scenario would be that the nuclear deal with Iran be scuttled. Freed of the nuclear taint, (these countries fear) Iran will begin to play a regional role which will diminish theirs. The Middle East will never be the same again. They are trying to scare Washington. “Look, a risen Iran will undermine the US in the Middle East.” This kind of talk has some purchase in the US Congress.
Washington is being implored to go slow on Iran and certainly not to invite Iran to the Conference on Syria, Geneva II. Kerry is walking around the minefields with great skill. “Iran has not been invited,” says he, or words to that effect. And he is not telling a lie. Iran has not been invited, not yet.
It will be different situation when the nuclear deal with Iran is set into operation on Monday. Kerry has made it clear on several occasions that he accords a higher priority to the nuclear deal than to Iran’s stand on Syria.
Once the nuclear arrangement gets going, and Iran emerges with a non stigmatized image in a region riven with terrorism, why would anyone stand in the way of a country with so much influence in Syria?
In fact it could be curtains for the Al Qaida affiliates running amok in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan? When the sponsorship of these groups is terminated, how will these clusters of high voltage fundamentalism ever be tamed?