Syria Talks in Geneva: Who's Who May Be The Hardest Question
ISTANBUL — The Geneva process for the Syrian crisis was launched with a stated commitment from Russia and the United States to find a political solution. But it will go nowhere if it can't overcome the clashing desires of the various fighting interests.
Certain international actors penned a temporary road map in Vienna back in November to establish a transition process in Syria. The United Nations expected the Syrian government and the opposition forces to sit at the negotiation table on Jan. 1, to form a transitional government within six months and hold elections within 18 months. But the sides have yet to even begin, as the start of talks has been pushed back until Friday.
What's blocking a solution is the issue of representation. Everybody wants their own representative at the table. Syria, Iran and Russia insist that organizations in Syria backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — such as Ahrar al Sham or the Army of Islam — should be on the terrorism list.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, wants the Army of Islam at the table across from Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. The Saudis have already gathered allied opposition groups in Riyadh in December, forming a negotiation mission with Army of Islam Commander Mohammad Alush as the chief negotiator. This particular anti-Assad group has maintained that it should be only opposition force to sit at the negotiation table.
Another regional actor is Qatar, but its profile on the Syrian stage has been diluted since the throne passed from father to son. For now, it's doing little more than expressing its position. Turkey, which has formed a strong alliance with Qatar in the last five years, has been trying to force its own agenda, much like Saudi Arabia.
Turkey too wants the organizations it supports to be at the table, and it has also marked a line in the sand: No Kurds Allowed. As a nod to Turkish sensitivities, Saudi Arabia did not invite the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its militant People Protection Units (YPG) to the gathering in Riyadh. It's also rumored that Turkey threatened to boycott talks in Geneva if YPG and PYD were invited. The political actors in Western Kurdistan, or Rojava, have formed an alternative negotiation council by gathering the opposition groups that were not invited to Riyadh. This council, known as the Syrian Democratic Parliament, features leftist figures as well.
U.S. Secretary of the State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are trying to find a common solution. The U.S. seems to be closer to the Russian stance on the issue of including the PYD, which has been neglected at the first and second Geneva conferences. The Americans are already coordinating with the YPG in combating ISIS. The U.S. role is convincing Turkey and Saudi Arabia to soften their stance on the Kurds. If not, the only ground that allows the Americans to set foot in Syria may drift to the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Russians are keeping the PYD and YPG close in order to prevent the U.S. from becoming the chief Kurdish ally in the region, and to keep the 50 temporary military personnel in Rojava from becoming a permanent base.
The most critical move Russia could make to affect Kurds in Syria would be to guarantee recognition of Rojava's democratic autonomy in Syria's next constitution. Russia is silent about this at the moment, partially because of its state policy for not intervening in allies' regimes and democratic affairs and partially because the resistance they expect from Assad's government. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Istanbul and his meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan also failed to find common ground. Turkey insisted on its position that the Kurdish parties are terror organizations just like ISIS.
Many international actors have invested in this war, and nobody wants to leave the bloody poker game with empty pockets. Saudi Arabia has been financing dirty deeds, coup preparations and undercover operations from Asia to the Middle East and from Africa to Latin America since the 1970s. It financed the training and arming of the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviets after 1979. The CIA has opened a bank account with no interest (because interest is a sin), which the Saudis bankrolled to buy guns for the mujahedin. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the ugly heritage of this collaboration.
Top Saudi Intelligence Bander Bin Sultan has long been involved in secret operations, including the arming of Syrian opposition since 2011. Bender was an ambassador in Washington and was among the exposed players in the Irangate scandal. The Saudis continued the money flow via a Cayman Islands bank after the U.S. Congress cut his budget.
Money from the Saudis and guns from the CIA has been put to work again during the Syrian crisis. President Obama granted permission to arm the Syrian opposition in 2013, but in fact the U.S. regional allies — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — have already been arming them for a year.
The New York Times has recently reported that Saudi Arabia and Qatar spent billions of dollars to train and equip CIA programs. The CIA bought weapons in Croatia, and Saudi Arabia paid the bill. Thousands of AK47s and millions of bullets were transported from Eastern Europe. Qatar bought shoulder rockets made in China and transported them to Syria. But Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia went too far by arming al-Qaeda affiliated groups, or those that operate like it.
Disagreement with regional partners took on new meaning when the U.S. changed course from fighting Assad to a war on ISIS. That's when the Saudi-Qatar-Turkey partnership became part of the problem for the U.S. Another problem later turned out to be the U.S. demand for Syrian ally Iran to get involved in the negotiations, as Saudi Arabia has already been upset that U.S. and Iran were working toward an accord on Tehran's nuclear program.
So now, after all of the funding it has provided to the CIA over the decades, it's Saudi Arabia's turn to raise its voice. The Saudi dynasty is at odds with the U.S. for the first time, demanding loyalty to their dirty alliance. The weakness displayed by the Obama administration comes from this alliance's terrible record. That's why they agree with Russia behind closed doors, then turn around and agree with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in public.
What can be expected from the Geneva talks in this atmosphere? With the start of the conference already postponed until Friday, the summit may not end the war. But if Moscow and Washington can at least figure out who is sitting at the table, they may earn a ticket out of Syria.