Delays Mount As Syria Burns

Conference to plan transitional government in Syria hits roadblocks

A fireball from an explosion at a weapons depot set off by rocket attacks that struck government-held districts in the central Syrian city of Homs / AP
• August 19, 2013 5:00 am


More than a year since the announcement of a United States- and Russia-backed plan to establish a transitional government in civil war-torn Syria, no such body has been formed.

The United Nations Action Group on Syria announced on June 30, 2012, a plan backed by the United States and Russia, among others, to establish a transitional government in Syria as a precursor to constitutional revisions and elections.

However, despite the decision by the Obama administration to make the creation of an interim government the centerpiece of its Syria policy, no progress has been made.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Tuesday that a peace conference planned since May to institute the transitional government will likely not be held until October.

That has led experts to suggest that U.S. efforts to coax Russia into prodding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally and recipient of $4 billion in annual arms sales, to step down and yield to a transitional body appear to have failed.

Elliott Abrams, former national security adviser for the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that U.S. diplomatic efforts do not reflect the facts on the ground.

"To think we can substitute the secretary of state’s presence and speeches for a real policy of helping the Syrian opposition is quite foolish," he said.

Rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who outnumber the al Qaeda-linked groups also opposing Assad’s forces but lack their financial resources, have expressed trepidation about the talks in light of Assad’s recent gains. That split between the nationalist rebels and foreign jihadist groups has complicated efforts to bring a unified opposition to the negotiating table, experts say.

Russian intransigence has also played a role in delaying the talks.

"The administration has been working under the assumption that good faith actions from the American side will be reciprocated by the Russians," said Michael Weiss, an analyst of the Syria conflict and editor of The Interpreter, an English-language Russian news site.

"That hasn't been the case across a range of issues, but none more so than Syria, where Putin delights in repeatedly humiliating Obama's diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, it took an NSA contractor with U.S. state secrets receiving sanctuary in Moscow for Obama to realize, or at least acknowledge publicly, that he's been getting conned for five years."

Below is a timeline of the proposals and setbacks that have typified U.S. and Russian negotiations to organize a conference and transitional government in Syria:


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On May 7, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the two had agreed to convene the peace conference "as soon as is practicable, possibly and hopefully, by the end of this month."

The conference would aim to implement the Geneva plan proffered last summer and appoint a transitional government "by mutual consent" of Assad’s regime and his opposition. The sectarian civil war between Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, and Sunni rebels and jihadist groups had raged for more than two years and claimed more than 70,000 lives at this point.


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The New York Times reported, "A date for the Geneva conference has yet to be set," a month after Kerry and Lavrov announced the proposal to form the conference.

A main sticking point was the opposition of FSA Gen. Salim Idris, who said he supported the talks in principle but refused to attend until he received arms from Western nations and could better exercise leverage on the ground.

Idris’ comments came after the Syrian military, backed by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, had seized the strategic town of Qusayr near Syria’s border with Lebanon.

"There will be no Geneva," Idris said at the time.


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Kerry said the talks would take place "sooner rather than later" on July 2 following a meeting with Lavrov in Brunei. The Obama administration had decided to provide the FSA with limited arms after confirming reports that Assad’s forces used nerve gas on the rebels and crossed the president’s "red line," but Kerry downplayed the importance of the situation on the ground in his remarks.

"Whether the regime is doing better or the opposition is doing better is frankly not determinative of that outcome because the outcome requires a transition government," he said, referring to the conditions necessary for the Geneva conference to take place.

The New York Times reported that several obstacles remained before the conference could be held, including the Russians’ insistence that Iran be included—which U.S. officials staunchly oppose—and that Assad’s departure should not be a precondition of talks.

Additionally, Kerry noted that European leaders have a penchant for vacationing in August.

"Obviously August is very difficult for Europeans and others, so it may be somewhat thereafter," he said.


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Now more than three months out from the announcement of the supposedly imminent talks, Kerry and Lavrov again agreed on Aug. 9 to convene the conference "as soon as possible." The Syrian conflict has now claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Lavrov hinted at a breakthrough after five hours of political and security meetings in Washington, D.C., adding that he would meet with U.S. officials again at the end of the month to prepare the talks.

"John Kerry assured me that the opposition would be persuaded to come to Geneva without any preconditions on the basis of reaching agreement with the government," he said.

Yet Reuters also reported "the United States, like the Syrian rebels, says Assad and his family should play no role in a transitional government."

Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager for the group Oxfam America, said the group was "cautiously optimistic" but acknowledged previous delays.

"Calls for peace must be supported by action and commitment. Otherwise, talk is cheap," she told Reuters.


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Tuesday, the deputy to Lavrov pushed the likely date of the conference back to October because of "different events" but added, "We are for it happening as soon as possible."

"Battlefield gains by Assad have added to questions about when and even whether it will take place," Reuters reported, noting Russian Foreign Deputy Minister Gatilov’s and Russia’s preference for still inviting Iran to the talks.

Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Center for Transatlantic Relations, said in an interview that the oft-deferred conference conveniently complies with Russia’s new foreign policy paradigm of no "external intervention in domestic affairs."

Jensen said Russian President Vladimir Putin was alarmed at the implications of the United States assisting the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime in Libya, adding that Russian officials resolved that they were "not going to let that happen again."

"Kerry’s diplomatic initiative is likely to fail because of Moscow’s very different geopolitical calculations about what is at stake," he said. "[The White House is] doing it partly to save face on a situation that no one can control."