UN set for conference to end Syrian conflict

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the media during a press conference at United Nations headquarters in New York, N.Y. (Jan. 19, 2014) Photo Credit: EPA

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UNITED NATIONS - The day and venue are set: Wednesday in Switzerland.

The invitations have been sent, the guest list containing delegations from more than 30 nations, including Iran, which said Sunday it would attend.

And while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is pleased that the oft-postponed international conference to end the bloodshed in Syria -- Geneva II -- has come to fruition, its success at a seemingly intractable task is far from certain, observers said.

The event will take place nearly three years after Bashar Assad's government cracked down on protesters during the Arab Spring that began in March 2011.

It was a contagious phenomenon of peaceful protests against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. A wave of country-by-country activism toppled strongmen like falling dominoes, including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

But in Syria, those demonstrations mushroomed into a bloody civil war, in which victims have been tortured, gassed to death with chemical weapons or obliterated by massive "barrel" bombs.

It is a conflict with no end in sight that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.

And it has also spilled millions of desperate refugees into neighboring countries and made Syria a magnet for extremist fighters, including al-Qaida-linked rebels. The battles have trapped many thousands of people in war zones without access to food and medicine.


Diligently planned

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The UN's special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has diligently planned the conference, which begins in Montreux and moves Friday to Geneva, when rebels and Syrian government officials will meet. It comes on the heels of an international donor conference in Kuwait that raised $2.4 billion for victims of the war.

Syria's Assad said his delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, is attending the conference to rid its country of "terrorists," such as the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front and Islamic State in Syria.

But the UN and rebel-backers such as the United States contend that the conference is designed solely to end the fighting by creating a transitional government, a desire expressed in the so-called Geneva Communiqué that emerged from the June 2012 conference in that city.

That transitional government may or may not include Assad -- and there's the rub.

"Let me state one more time what Geneva II is about," Secretary of State John Kerry said at a Washington briefing Thursday. "It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition government body -- governing body with full executive powers established by mutual consent."

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the same thing Thursday to reporters at UN headquarters in New York.

"We do want both parties to come to the talks prepared to negotiate seriously with each other and to negotiate seriously on the terms of the Geneva Communiqué that we have been trying to make operational over the past year and a half," he said.

Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent analyst of U.S. foreign policy, called success "a very long shot."

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said the presence of Iran, a key player in the conflict and the region, would be a hopeful sign, using the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998 as an example.

In that conflict, she said, broker and former Sen. George Mitchell allowed every party at the table, even the most extreme factions of the decades-long war.

"If you're serious, everyone has to be at the table," she said.

Still, Bennis said the conference attendees may be able to accomplish some smaller victories that could alleviate the war's impact on the Syrian population. Those include creating a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of food, water and medicine, ending the siege of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and agreeing to cease-fires in parts of the country.

"They're not going to be easy, but they are achievable," she said.


A doomed effort?

Adelphi University political science professor Danielle Zach took a dimmer view of the conference, saying it is all but doomed to flop. "The prospects for a negotiated settlement coming out of Geneva are essentially nil," she said.

A fragmented opposition and an Assad who wants to cling to power, she said, contribute to the conference's probable failure.

"Who can credibly speak for the opposition?" she wondered. Indeed, the National Coordination Committee, an opposition group, informed UN officials Wednesday that it would not be attending the conference.

Zach added that Assad has made significant military gains over time, and his delegation goes to the conference with those victories fresh in everyone's minds, translating to power at the table.

"With Assad walking in from a stronger position, he can frame it in terms that are amenable to maintaining his regime," she said, referring to Assad's insistence that the conference is less about a transition than it is about ridding his country of terrorism. "I don't think Assad has an incentive to negotiate away his power."


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