Panellists Debate Syria’s Future in Light of Geneva III

11 April 2016

AlJazeera Centre for Studies and AlJazeera Mubasher’s first joint televised panel on 5 April 2016 focused on future scenarios for a political settlement in Syria, how successful the Geneva talks are likely to be and consequences of failure. The halting Geneva III negotiations in March of this year attempted to revive two previous rounds of talks, but ended much in the same way, with more promises to meet later in April but no concrete resolutions to address a realistic end to the bloodshed in Syria.

Adding to the ambiguity and uncertainty on Geneva III outcomes is Russian intervention in Syria and the subsequent so-called Russian withdrawal from Syria, as well as moves by Russia and the US to come to a mutual understanding on a plan for Syria.

For Riad Nasan Agha, the official spokesperson of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) members, Assad’s removal is the key solution to the Syrian issue. At the start of the panel, he particularly took issue with calling it the Syrian “crisis”, instead opting for the term “issue” or “revolution” given its unique path in comparison to other major historical revolutions and its current central role in global politics.

Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian professor of political sociology speaking from the audience, agreed with this sentiment, and added, “The executioner…cannot hold dialogue with the victim he is killing and torturing every day”. He also to took issue with international stances which have impeded the progress of negotiations, suggesting that Russian intervention in Syria has been the latest in a series of attrition war tactics, designed to exhaust the Syrian people and pressure them to accept a transition that will allow Assad to remain in power.

Like the other panellists, Russian political analyst Yevgeny Sidorov questioned the likelihood of Geneva III’s success, and pinpointed Staffan de Mistura as one of the key actors who must close the large gap between the opposition and the Assad regime in order to create a realistic sketch of a transition government. This is a challenge given the difference of opinion between the opposition and Russia on the fate of Assad.

The idea of a federal structure for Syria has been an issue of contention, and this was also addressed by Sidorov, who said that it was not the name of the future solution that mattered but rather the essence – in other words, he envisioned Syria could remain one country but some provinces could be granted “more autonomy, allowing each to pursue policies favourable to the majority of their respective residents”.

While Agha and Ghalioun focused on the international community’s hesitance to take a strong stance against Assad, Suleiman al-Oqaili, a Saudi political analyst, focused on what he sees as very “limited options” for Arab parties involved in the conflict. Laying much of the blame on Russia and the United States, al-Oqaili argued that a strained Saudi-US relationship since 2013 has been one of the impediments to finding viable Arab-led solutions to what is happening in Syria.

Al-Oqaili also addressed Saudi’s current weak relations with Russia. He said that Riyadh has opened opportunities for partnership and alliance with Moscow not only regarding what’s happening in Syria, but also in light of US withdrawal from the region. In his opinion, two variables give Saudi the upper hand in this relationship with Russia at the current time: Saudi’s share in the oil market and its provision of antiaircraft systems to the Syrian opposition.

One thing was clear by the end of the panel – while all participants conceded that success of Geneva III was a possibility, all parties to the conflict also conceded that this was actually a very small possibility unless the international community makes fundamental changes to the approach it has taken to solve the Syrian issue thus far.