Washington has evidently shifted from a covert military track for regime change in Syria to a political track. The announced withdrawal of Russian forces by President Vladimir Putin this week was made in light of the Syrian peace process having been facilitated by Russia’s five-month military intervention.
A shift to peace talks is to be welcomed. The movement has already curbed the violence and death in Syria. However, Washington’s political involvement under the guise of the Geneva peace process is not what it may seem. It is still predicated on an unacceptable interference and violation of Syria’s sovereignty. That does not bode well for a just peace.
We know that Washington’s intentions are unscrupulous owing to the warped focus that US top diplomat John Kerry adopted at this week’s re-opening of the Geneva talks.
The Turkish military continues to shell Syrian territory, and is accused now by Russia’s Sergey Lavrov of having its troops dug in across its southern border. And yet US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared oblivious to these serious violations of international law. Instead, Kerry reserved his ire for the Assad government, claiming that its delegation in Geneva was trying to «clearly disrupt» the supposed peace talks.
This lopsided American view betrays what Washington is intending to achieve through the UN-backed Geneva talks, which have been convened jointly by the US and Russia as the main sponsors of the International Syrian Support Group. The talks resumed this week after breaking down last month. A fair explanation for the earlier breakdown is that regime-change demands were being railroaded as preconditions by the US and Saudi-backed opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, there are also reliable reports that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish regime has stepped up covert military supplies to terror groups in northern Syria, including the supply of chemical weapons. There has been a spike in incidents involving chemical weapons attacks in Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria, which have been attributed to al-Qaeda-linked terror groups.
That Turkey is implicated in all of these violations amounts to an astounding indictment of a NATO member, which contemptibly claims to be «fighting terrorism».
It also coincides with reported increased Turkish repression against ethnic Kurds in southeast Turkey. Cizre, Sirnak and several others cities in that region have been placed under curfew without any due legal process, and there are credible claims from local politicians that hundreds of civilians, including women and children, have been killed unlawfully by Turkish forces in recent months.
Following the second deadly bomb blast at the weekend in Turkey’s capital Ankara in as many months, the Turkish state authorities are vowing to step up offensive actions against Kurdish populations in southeast Turkey, as well as in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Some Turk citizens believe that Erdogan’s ruling AK Party may be complicit in the alleged terror attacks in Ankara as a means to providing political cover for the military’s escalated actions, both within the country and in Syria and Iraq.
Yet none of this conduct by Ankara has registered with Washington for censure.
Recall too that after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane in November – with the loss of a pilot’s life – Washington issued its support for Turkey’s actions even though the evidence points to the NATO member as having infringed on Syrian territory. That is, of having committed a grave crime.
At the weekend, however, what animated America’s chief diplomat John Kerry was none of Turkey’s obvious attempts at wrecking the tentative Syrian truce, but rather it was a reasonable protest made by the Assad government that got his hackles up.
Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem had rebuked the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura for comments he had made concerning national elections being held in Syria in 18 months’ time.
The Syrian minister also lambasted the US and Saudi-backed opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, for yet again demanding the removal of President Assad as a precondition for talks.
«We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency... Bashar al-Assad is a red line», said foreign minister Moallem.
What the HNC had said was a lot more provocative that just Assad standing down. It appeared to be calling for the president’s assassination.
HNC chief negotiator Mohammed Alloush was quoted as saying: «We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall, or death, of Bashar al-Assad».
Given that the HNC, also known as the Riyadh Group, is affiliated with al-Qaeda-linked militia Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham, the threat to Assad is not an idle one.
But the point is that the Syrian government is entitled to draw such a red line. The UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which endorses the Geneva talks makes no mention of Assad or the presidency. The resolution clearly stipulates that the political future of Syria is to be determined by the Syrian people alone.
The Assad government is also right to clamp de Mistura on his precocious talk about national elections. It is correct that Resolution 2254 does indeed refer to such elections in the future, but clearly they are to be held in the context of a Syrian-led political transition having been resolved and mandated by the electorate through a referendum. To bring up the issue of elections at this nascent stage when the outlines of an opposition group or groups has not even been formed yet is thus wildly off the mark.
As Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government’s lead negotiator in Geneva, is quoted as saying: «Until now, we don’t know which delegations we are supposed to negotiate with through the UN envoy.»
As it turned out, the Syrian government’s delegation held its initial meeting with de Mistura on Monday and were able to voice their objections, which the UN envoy appeared to accept.
But in that earlier spat and also in Kerry’s wonky focus what is disturbingly apparent is that Washington will attempt to use the Geneva talks as a political lever in order to extract its objective of regime change in Damascus.
UN envoy to Syria de Mistura, as with his predecessors Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, appears to be too much under the sway of Washington. The Swedish-Italian diplomat has evidently given the prime opposition chair to the US and Saudi-backed HNC group. That privilege seems woefully undeserved given the terrorist affiliations of its members and also given the HNC’s largely exiled status, as well as its high-handed preconditions that contravene Resolution 2254.
Last week, the HNC said it was not going to attend the Geneva talks. Then after John Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia last Friday seemingly to urge participation in dialogue, the group suddenly announced that it would be going to Geneva after all. But as we have seen, their contribution was to reiterate the removal or death of Assad. It is evidently a catspaw for US objectives. By right, it shouldn’t even be a participant at Geneva.
What would be more appropriate, as Russia and the Syrian government have both said, is for as wide as possible internal Syrian dialogue to take place to underpin a viable political transition and peace settlement. Russia has repeatedly called for inclusion of Syrian Kurds. Also, Russia and Syria have welcomed a new opposition coalition called the Hmeimim Group, which Moscow diplomats facilitated through the Russian base in Latakia Province.
The Hmeimim Group is said to comprise «doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalist and public activists representing the Syrian organization National Action, the Front for Democratic Action in Syria, the Syrian National Youth Party and Syrian Fatherland Party, as well as the International Red Cross Committee» – all of whom live and work in the country.
Going forward, the Litmus test for how genuine the Geneva process is will be if both the Kurds and other opposition voices are permitted to participate in the dialogue. If, on the other hand, the opposition continues to be monopolized by the Washington-backed HNC then that indicates that the talks framework is being externally dictated for the purpose of facilitating regime change, not for the purpose of finding a Syrian peace settlement.
Kerry’s ludicrous focus on chiding the Syrian government for «disrupting the Geneva talks» over its legitimate objections to provocative preconditions, while at the very same time that NATO member Turkey is bombing and invading Syria, is also a further bad sign that Washington’s regime-change machinations are whirring away as ever.