Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Geneva 2 Meetings on Syria set to reconvene February 10 , 2014 - More of the same ? Will Iran be allowed to directly participate this go round ?

The second round of the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict opens Monday, Feb. 10 – this time with a seat at the table for the Iranian delegation provided by Washington, DEBKAfile reports exclusively. Washington relayed this abrupt turnabout from its ban last week on Iranian representatives to the Tehran delegates quietly attending the secret alternative conference taking place unannounced in Bern.

This event has proceeded in parallel to the public gathering in Montreux with the participation of Assad regime and opposition delegates, as well as senior US, Iranian and Russian officials. It was there that the real business was contracted behind closed doors – not in Montreux, where rigid official positions were presented for public consumption as a decoy from the Bern meeting, for which the Swiss government rather than the UN had provided the necessary technical and logistic facilities.

The Bern channel was first revealed in the last DEBKA Weekly issue, No. 621 of Jan. 31.

Permission to admit Iran to the Bern parley marked another major Obama administration concession to Tehran. For the first time, Iran delegates took their seats around an international conference table alongside the major powers with a say on political and strategic decisions for a critical Mid East conflict.

This basic shift was evinced, according to our sources, Tuesday, Feb. 4 in Washington and in Moscow.

Appearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Director of Intelligence James Clapper admitted that the agreement to dismantle the Syrian chemical weapons, reached last year in Geneva by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had “actually strengthened Bashar Assad’s position… by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.”

In the space of a week, Washington has gone back on the forceful statement Kerry made at the opening of the Geneva conference on Jan. 16, when he said “as we get into this process, it will become clear there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that future. It is not going to happen”

The Obama administration is now forced to act on the presumption of a stronger Bashar Assad – as registered by Clapper, meaning that in order to be realistic, there is no option but to accept the Syrian ruler’s strong standing in Damascus and Tehran and the unavoidable conclusion that Iran is vitally instrumental to any resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Few people even in Israel noticed the telling comment made last week by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s special emissary to Tehran, Jibril Rajoub. He said after talking to Iranian officials that Tehran must be part of the negotiating process ongoing between the Palestinians and Israel, clearly speaking under the influence of Iran’s enhanced position in the conference on Syria’s future.

In Moscow Tuesday, Lavrov, standing with Ahmad Jarba, leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said “there was no doubt that Syrian opposition would attend” the second round of Geneva 2 next week.

This was after he had told Jarba privately, DEBKAfile’s sources report, that Iran must participate henceforth in the talks for there to be any chance of progress toward a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

None of this, or the admitted “roll-down” in the deal for eliminating Assad’s chemical arsenal, deterred Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the head of the US team at the nuclear negotiations with Iran,  from explaining to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the interim nuclear agreement signed with Iran is “full of holes” because it is not a final agreement. “This is not perfect but this does freeze and roll back their program in significant ways and give us time on the clock to in fact negotiate that comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said.

The problem with this is that no one in Moscow, Tehran or Damascus has any doubt that the nuclear deals with the big powers will not turn out much differently from the agreement for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

The Syrian National Coalition says it will take part in the second round of Geneva 2 talks. Russia says the Syrian government expressed "no doubts" that it will also attend, adding that it plans to send a shipment of chemical agents out of the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Ahmad Jarba on Tuesday. Following the talks - which took place in Moscow and focused on the temporarily halted peace conference in Switzerland - Jarba confirmed to Russian media that the SNC will come to Geneva on February 10.
“We have agreed to take part in Geneva [peace] conference to fulfill the Geneva Communiqué…We have stated our intention to take part in the second round of talks on February 10,” Jarba said, as quoted by Interfax.
The Coalition has decided it must “follow the way of political settlement” of the Syrian conflict despite all odds during the first round of talks and the latest offensive from government forces on the ground, Jarba added.
The much-awaited and much-delayed Geneva 2 peace talks broke up with no sign of progress last week as the opposing sides repeatedly accused one another of being “terrorists,” failing to move forward even on humanitarian issues. The opposition’s demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave office – a move openly backed by Washington – was met with resistance from the government delegation.
Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

However, Moscow expects Damascus to continue with the talks. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, the Syrian government has “expressed no doubt regarding its participation in the next round of talks.”
Russia on Tuesday suggested that to move forward with the talks, the Syrian delegations should form specialized task groups on different issues, Gatilov stated.
For every issue some concrete efforts are needed; some are easier solved, the other ones are tougher – for instance, the creation of interim government. But this does not mean that one should focus on a single problem and ignore the others,” Gatilov told RIA Novosti.
Such task groups should be Syrian-only, and while their work could be mediated by the UN, there can be no foreign meddling in the process, he said.
It is important to “fully implement” the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012, which includes “fighting terrorism, effecting ceasefire, ensuring humanitarian access and POW exchange,” Lavrov told Jarba, according to statements issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.
The SNC leader, however, said he believes that creating a transitional body is a top priority that will solve all other issues automatically.
“Formation of an interim government will solve all other disputable problems, including ceasefire and releases of the war prisoners,” Jarba assured, stating that the opposition has already prepared a list of candidates and expressed readiness “to be flexible and open for dialogue while discussing nominees.”
The Syrian parties have so far not reached an agreement on POW exchange. The opposition has failed to present a list of people they captured, though Damascus has already handed its list to the SNC, Gatilov said.
The Russian official also doubted that the Syrian opposition has any leverage to affect the actions of international terrorist groups fighting on the ground in Syria with the aim to create a Sharia law-based Islamic state.
Meanwhile, Jarba said the opposition refuses to discuss the problem of terrorism in Syria “while Assad is in power.” However, he told Russian journalists that the SNC does not recognize the Islamic Front - a major merger of Syrian rebel fighters formed in November - as a terrorist organization, and considers them “revolutionaries.”

Chemical delay to break ‘in February’

The start of the Geneva 2 peace talks coincided with another wave of Western pressure against the Syrian government, with the US accusing Syria of deliberately delaying the delivery of its chemical weapons out of the country, as well as reportedly authorizing the delivery of some weapons to the opposition during a closed Congress session.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also asked Russia to press Damascus to speed up the completion of its international obligation, State Department spokesman Jennifer Psaki said on Tuesday.
Gatilov replied to the US rhetoric by saying there was “no need to make a drama out of the situation with the disarmament.”
Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1,” RIA Novosti quoted Gatilov as saying.
There are, however, some well-founded security related concerns, Gatilov added, saying that several provocations have already been attempted.
Russia is confident that Syria’s chemical arsenal will be destroyed by the June 30 deadline, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Reuters on Monday.