On Saturday morning (June 30, 2012), Door IV of Geneva’s Palais des Nations was buzzing with security officers and bodyguards. At the UN Office, Geneva’s Director General, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, together with his most senior staff, paced nervously within a the guarded perimeter. The latest meeting of the Syria Action Group was about to take place. Guests included the secretary-generals of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, and the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, the foreign ministers of the UN Security Council’s permanent five members (China’s Yang Jiechi, France’s Laurent Fabius, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, the UK’s William Hague and the US’ Hillary Clinton), Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu, Iraq’s Hoshyar Zebari, Kuwait’s Mohammed Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah and Qatar’s Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani, as well as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. All were gathered in Geneva to discuss the future of Syria, as violence between the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition forces continued.
A few days before the scheduled encounter, disagreement between Clinton and Lavrov over the timing and terms of a transition for Syria almost led to its cancellation. Russia had refused to sign a document proposing a transition in which Assad would be de facto absent – a condition sine qua non for the US. Asked about the impasse, Hague did not hide his skepticism: while explaining that nine of eleven delegations attending the event agreed with the proposals UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan had sent them, he alluded to the failure of preliminary negotiations to convince China and Russia. Hague added, “I don’t know whether it will be possible to do so.”
All of Annan’s energy was required just for the US and Russia to be present and pursue talks at ministerial level. At the opening of the meeting, Annan could not hide his disappointment at ongoing diplomatic quarrels even as the Syrian situation continued to falter, declaring: “the crisis has deepened, and the Six-Point Plan has not been implemented. Action should clearly have been taken already to ensure implementation – but none has been forthcoming."
Annan’s goal for Saturday’s agenda had been clear: ministers were meeting to adopt his Principles and Guidelines on a Syrian-led Transition. The document was meant to both focus and drive forward the UN agenda for Syria, aiming to assist all parties in ending the violence and human rights violations while securing humanitarian access and facilitating a Syria-led political transition to a democratic political system. The document was intended to supplement the ‘Six-Point Plan’ Annan had submitted previously to the Syrian authorities and opposition. The plan had led to a ceasefire agreement implemented on 12 April – which was violated soon after – by providing guidelines for a political transition.
The principles contained in the documents envisioned, in Annan’s words, a “future that [could] be shared by all in Syria – a genuinely democratic and pluralistic state, with free and fair elections, full respect for human rights and the rule of law, equal access to opportunities for all, and assurances that the rights of smaller communities [would] be respected”. These are clear in theory. Yet, no implementation schedule has been established. The only answer Annan could offer on a possible timeframe was that he hoped that “within a year, we [would] see results."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
After the nearly ten-hour long meeting, Clinton and Lavrov each spoke, making it clear that many of their divergences in opinion had not been resolved – especially regarding the actors involved in the process. The leadership of the country, as well as the role of the opposition, remained sensitive topics – topics unaddressed by the proposed transition principles. While Clinton suggested that the transition would happen without Assad - “he needs to hear his days are numbered” – Lavrov insisted that he would be a participant in the process. The Russian also condemned the opposition several times for refusing to sign formally the Six-Point Plan. He also reproached some of its negotiating partners for inviting the opposition to the Paris meeting of the 'friends of Syria' planned for July 6, 2012.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov
In the aftermath of Saturday’s gathering, the document stated that the transitional governing body “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, and [should] be formed on the basis of mutual consent”. Another point of divergence dealt with the external actors involved in shaping Syria’s future. Amongst the notable absentees from the summit were Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are thought to be funding different sides of the conflict and therefore able to help tip the balance.
Ultimately, and sadly, the only agreement that the US and Russian representatives seemed to have been capable of coming to was that diplomacy was a tough job. Clinton explained that “diplomacy [was] not easy,” echoed in Lavrov’s admission that “preparation for the meeting [had not been] easy.”
Other participants, such as the Arab League countries, criticized a plan that fell short of expectations. Meeting with opposition groups in Cairo today (July 2, 2012), El-Araby emphasized that “there [was] an opportunity before the conference of Syrian opposition… that must be seized, and I say and repeat that this opportunity must not be wasted under any circumstance”. For him, only internal actors could succeed after the perceived failure of Saturday’s negotiations.
Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan
Now it is hoped that the key actors in Syria itself will be more co-operative, as expressed by Annan: “I hope the Syrians will succeed." His plan in the wake of the ministerial meeting is to convince the main stakeholders to implement a transition that embraces the principles of the declaration and also a concrete plan of action, as well as minimize foreign interference. The 700 killed and a Turkish plane shot down on Syrian territory last week, however, seem to indicate otherwise.
(Photo: coverpage © UN ; article, © Julie Mandoyan for The Global Journal)