Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why the Syria talks remind me of the Oslo process

Unless the imbalance of power behind the Syria talks is rectified, Geneva is doomed to fail just like Oslo.


By Marwan Bishara


On the day the Geneva talks on Syria were set to begin, France announced it intends to hold a new round of Oslo talks on Palestine. The Oslo Process has gone on for almost a quarter of a century but Palestine remains under Israel occupation.
Will the Syria peace talks face a similar fate - long on talk, short on peace?
My crystal ball isn't responding with its usual clarity, but what is becoming clear is an eerie resemblance between the forces, dynamics and diplomatic jargon that characterise both Geneva and Oslo.
Inside Story - Is there any hope for the Syria talks?
There are similarities and differences but when it comes to the scope of the violence and the ineffectiveness of diplomacy, the similarities are all too shocking even before the Geneva talks get underway.

On violence

Like Israel, the Assad regime has imprisoned, tortured, starved, killed, and bombed neighbourhoods, but the barrel-bombing of towns is Bashar al-Assad's ingenuity and should be trademarked accordingly.
Since the peaceful Syrian uprising began in 2011, the regime in Damascus has grabbed more than a page from Israel's occupation manuals. He labeled the peace demonstrators foreign-backed terrorists. He even called them "germs" (leading to cries of solidarity between Syria's "germs" and Libya's "rats").

It's perhaps coincidental that the Assad dictatorship has been in control of Syria since a year after Israel occupied the rest of Palestine in 1967, but it's been no less tragic.
A man carries an injured child in a site damaged from what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus [REUTERS]
Like Israelis who "shoot and cry", Assad & co. also bomb and lament. Their cynicism has proven without bounds as they pride themselves on killing "terrorists" as they destroy a whole nation, and in the case of Assad, it's his own people.  
A quarter of a million Syrians have already died in Assad's war, which also resulted in the displacement and exodus of half of its population. In four years, Assad forces killed more people than Israel killed Palestinians in four decades.
And unlike the Israeli leaders who never accepted foreign forces, not even US forces or air forces were ever allowed to deploy in Israeli controlled areas, Assad has evidently been trigger happy that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have all accepted his invitation to deploy. Together, they helped destroy the country in order to save the regime.
For these and other sinister reasons, Assad has lost all legitimacy, even as a sovereign dictator. For all practical purposes, he, his forces and his allies are behaving like an illegal occupying force, or worse.
The Geneva talks come against the backdrop of US failure in Iraq and Russian and Iranian military interventions that are tipping the balance of power in favour of the Assad regime.

Like in diplomacy

Diplomatic processes compare and contrast depending on a number of variables, but in essence, diplomacy is a reflection of balance (or imbalance) of power. (And when it comes to the Middle East, you could add the balance of bullsh*t - a powerful diplomatic tool that the Israelis and Assad often use.)
The Madrid and later the Oslo "peace process" started against the backdrop of the Soviet Union's loss of the Cold War and Moscow's realignment with Washington's policies, which favoured Israel.
The Geneva talks come against the backdrop of US failure in Iraq and Russian and Iranian military interventions that are tipping the balance of power in favour of the Assad regime. 
Washington's complicity and its realignment with Moscow made it possible to pass UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that frames these talks in favour of the Assad regime.
Like the Oslo process, the sponsors of the Geneva talks say there should be no preconditions for the Syria talks.
For the Palestinians, that basically meant continued Jewish settlement expansion on their land, continued occupation and the incarceration of thousands of political prisoners etc. For Syrians, it means continued bombardment, and imprisonment under Assad's rule.

In reality, however, there are preconditions. Like the Palestinians, the Syrian opposition must denounce and renounce "terrorism" if they are to join the talks, but the regime is invited as a legitimate partner in the these talks despite its continued "terrorism" in the form of aerial bombardment and the starvation of whole communities.
For the Syrians like the Palestinians, the objectives of the talks have been blurred and the road to achieve them marred with ambiguity and this only serves the Israeli and Syrian regimes.
In that way, the end of all occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state were omitted from the Oslo process. And for Syrians, neither 2254 nor the official invitation to the Geneva talks, mention the need for Assad to go.
Indeed, like in Palestine where the PLO was forced to share power with the Israeli occupation until it acquiesces to Israeli dictates and accepts restrictions on its sovereignty, the Syrian opposition is now expected to share power with Assad in some form of "unity government", instead of the original understanding agreed upon in Geneva-1, that stipulates a transitional ruling body with executive powers without Assad.
An overview of the room where UN mediator Staffan de Mistura and the Syrian ambassador to the UN opened the Syrian peace talks at the UN headquarters in Geneva [Reuters]
In both cases, the ultimate objective of the talks is neither freedom nor justice, but rather "combating terrorism".
As with the condition and objectives of the talks, there are also increasing similarities in the diplomatic jargon.
Proximity talks, no preconditions, moderate (and not-so-moderate) representation, Washington guarantees, multi-track discussions, simultaneous meetings, flexible framework, etc., might be familiar concepts in international diplomacy, but in Palestine and Syria, these are only meant to avoid pressuring the Israelis or the Assads to do the right thing: leave.
Even the role of the envoys is no less eerie. Unlike his predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, Staffan de Mistura is already behaving like a crossway between a scheming Dennis Ross and a bombastic Tony Blair.

Learning the right lessons

Why the impatience? Why not wait until the process gets underway to pass judgments? The same questions were also asked when the Oslo process began.
Since it's power that ultimately determines the outcome of diplomacy, unless the imbalance of power behind the Syria talks is rectified, Geneva, like Oslo, is doomed to fail.
By adopting a similar approach to Syria, one assumes the US and Russia have failed to learn the lessons of Oslo; a failed process that lasted over two decades and achieved more of the same failures and violence.
But perhaps they did learn the lessons, albeit the wrong lessons. Long diplomatic processes, like proxy wars, are indispensable tools for prolonging their hegemony over the Middle East region.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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