Analysis by John Keating
PARIS, May 30 (KUNA) -- Despite different views of France and the United States toward means for resolving the Syrian crisis and disarrays in the opposition camp, political analysts believe that such differences are not genuine and will not undermine efforts for reaching a consensus.
There have been some divergences between France and the US over the representation from the Syrian opposition, with Paris staunchly supporting the Syrian National Coalition which it has almost nurtured since its inception, while Washington appeared more attracted by a broader representation, taking in elements outside of the SNC.
Moreover in this regard, the differences among the opposition groups became very much clear during the recent Istanbul meetings.
"The regime's basic strategy is to live another day at any cost, and wait for the world to come to terms with it," said Peter Harling, an Arab world specialist at the Brussels-based "Crisis Group," in exclusive remarks to Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) Al-Assad's regime "fears that any compromise would weaken its internal cohesion and possibly precipitate its collapse," Harling told KUNA.
He also tries to exploit any divergence he can see in the opposition groups or even within the three major Western nations, the United States, France and Britain, which form the "P3" group.
Divergences in the P3 have been minimized through lengthy contacts on trilateral and bilateral levels but also within the "Friends of Syria" process, which held its last meeting last week in Amman.
"Since the serious and important trouble within the Coalition - with the resignation of (President) Moaz Al-Khatib and the suspension of interim Prime Minister-designate Ghassan Hitto - and the direct communications criticising the weight of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar in the opposition, there has been a real willingness to re-balance all of this," said Professor Joseph Bahout of the Science Po., elite politics school. Bahout, who is also a Middle East analyst at the Diplomatic Academy here, noted there was an effort underway to "enlarge the Coalition and put an end the bizarre duality between the Coalition and the Syrian National Council." "The idea a few days ago was to introduce a list of 25 people - called Liberal Democrats - grouped around Michel Kilo and thus rebalance the Coalition, with Moaz Al-Khatib coming back as a strong figure in the Coalition, " Bahout indicated.
This would imply the Muslim Brothers take a step back and the file would be handled between Washington and Riyadh, rather than such a strong role for others like Qatar, the analyst remarked.
But these efforts appear to have unraveled in Istanbul over the past four days and even if participants paper over the differences, the deep divisions are still running below the surface.
The chaotic opposition meeting in Istanbul has provided Al-Assad and his sponsor, Russia, with ammunition to say it is the opposition that is causing delays in peace negotiations.
Indeed, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov's meeting in Paris Monday and the outcome in Istanbul, Russia declared Tuesday that it is the lack of leadership within the opposition that is the principal obstacle to peace in Syria.
In any event, Bahout said that "we shouldn't exaggerate the differences between the US and France" and in the end, Paris will line up with Washington before Geneva.
"I think, regarding the US and French positions, they will find an agreement easily enough. There are certainly nuances, but I think we are in agreement on the essential things, particularly the process to evict Bashar Al-Assad. There is no fundamental difference in the P3 on this," said Denis Bauchard, a Middle East advisor at the French International Relations Institute in Paris (IFRI). "I think the problems are not so much in the P3 but they will emerge in the P5," which includes Russia and China and composes the UN Security Council membership.
"Evidently, each country wants to ensure that its 'clients' are well represented at the Geneva conference in June," Bauchard added in an interview with KUNA.
He said there were still "fundamental divergences" in the P5 over the "sequencing" of Bashar Al-Assad's departure from power and also about Iran's participation in Geneva.
Middle East analyst Bahout said that this "sequencing issue" also existed within the P3 and there were some "minor ambiguities" on the part of Americans, particularly, Kerry on when Bashar Al-Assad should step down, either before, during or after the peace process.
"We have some difficulty seeing the real position of (US Secretary of State John) Kerry on this. If I wanted to be optimistic I would say it is a necessary position to get success for Geneva II. If I wanted to be cynical I would say that the Russians and Iranians will not give up anything on this," he remarked. But, in any event, he said he did not much believe in the chances of success for Geneva or for a political solution, an option shared by Bauchard, who was also skeptical in view of the difficulties.
What appears certain is that there will be a lot of blood spilled in the meantime in places like Quasyr, which Bahout said is going to be "an awful butchery." He added that there may be a growing realisation that Al-Assad cannot be beaten on the ground and that some accommodation for him may have to take place - and in the end, he will not leave unless the Russians agree to this in Geneva II. If he does not seem to have a strong hold - even with his latest territorial gains - Al-Assad may push for a partition and seek to maintain power in an Alawite sector in Syria.
-- Bahout said it was "very probable" that the Russians and Americans are closely watching the situation and even "tacitly" agree to see what the outcome will be on the ground when Geneva II convenes around June 10, with a view to "a fragmented Syria" as an outcome of the conference.
"Assad is arriving at the table with a strong hand which could allow him to push for a 'Dayton' solution as came out of those talks on Yugoslavia," in the 1990s, he pointed out.
Officials, diplomats and experts all tend to agree that the Syrian leader, who was "on the ropes" several weeks ago, can now sit back and wait, as Western positions are aligning with each other and the Syrian opposition tries to get out of the divisive chaos that was clearly demonstrated these fast four days in bitter exchanges in Istanbul.
And lastly, Russia, is watching closely over Al-Assad's interests in the peace process and even acting almost as a spokesman for Damascus, as it was the Russians who announced the Syrian regime would "in principle" attend Geneva II, long before there was any official word from Damascus.
Lavrov travelled to Paris Monday night to meet US Secretary-of-State John Kerry for one-on-one talks on potential progress towards negotiations but Lavrov made a hard sell of getting the process underway by saying "it is a very tall order." At the same time in Brussels, European Union Foreign Ministers were bickering over whether to lift an arms embargo on the weakening opposition forces, which are under heavy attack from Al-Assad and are short on weapons.
The EU Ministers came up with a weak compromise, saying that the embargo could be lifted in August, a full two months from now, because they don't want to hamper the Geneva process. But as Al-Assad again takes the initiative in the field, he has little reason to hurry to Geneva and can continue to consolidate and improve his strategic positions as he knows the West will not be pumping in weapons to the other side any time soon. And he knows his faithful ally, Russia, will continue to send an abundant supply of armament to Damascus, while Iran also continues its support.
Given all of the above, Al-Assad can afford to wait. Diplomats here said that from his side Al-Assad produced "a list of five names" for Geneva, which includes the Syrian Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minster for Information, the Minister for Social Affairs and a leading figure from the Syrian Red Crescent. Thus the Syrian regime has appeared responsive and willing to move forward by proposing a regime delegation.
This list "is not written in stone" but is proposed, the diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.
But diplomatically, Al-Assad can be seen to have done what was asked of him without giving any major ground up, while the opposition is still unable to meet without major altercations.
On Iran, diplomats here said that the P3 was now on the same wavelength and all were opposed to Iran coming to Geneva but were opposed "with varying degrees of enthusiasm." France has been the most outspoken on Iran and how it feels Tehran has noting useful to bring to the Syrian talks and would be better off resolving the nuclear controversy with the international community if it wants to promote stability.
"Even if there are some divergences in the P3, these are minor and not fundamental," commented analyst Bahout of the Diplomatic Academy.
"I think all will line up behind the strongest member of the (P3) group - the United States - because the US has the means to discuss and will have greater weight in talks with the direct sponsors of the other side (Russia) and with supporters of the opposition, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar" Bahout added.
"Neither Britain nor France can do this," he stressed.
Whether Russia will prevail or not in getting Iran a seat at the table still remains to be seen two weeks ahead of Geneva II. What is certain is that Iran has influence on Al-Assad and has given him billions of dollars to prop him up these past two years, and some say, Iran is also providing military advisors or forces and certainly weapons to Damascus.
So Moscow and Tehran hold sway over Al-Assad so it depends a lot on how much they push him to move.
The Damascus regime "is highly dependent on its allies and cannot ignore them if they apply genuine pressure. Whether (Russia and Iran) are willing to do so, and at what price, are the only real question marks" before Geneva, observed Harling of the Crisis Group. Meanwhile, Bauchard noted the cautious approach of the US Secretary-of-State John Kerry who has said Geneva is not one conference "but the start of a process" and he has thereby deflated expectations about a major settlement at the meeting.
Indeed, there is no great optimism surrounding Geneva II, justifying Lavrov's "tall order" remark in Paris Monday.
There appear to be too many parameters that are not clearly defined, too many imponderables. Meanwhile, the regime has done its "duty" and submitted its delegation list and confirmed its "in principle" intention to attend as previously promised by the Russians, who now complain about the intention of the EU to supply weapons and also about the opposition which is in disarray.
Yet on the ground, a murderous battle is underway so that Al-Assad can recoup as much territory as possible before the June talks and also weaken the opposition position on the battlefield.
The addition of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon is a calculated risk but also a warning to the P3 and beyond that he can sow destruction in the region, as attested by the violent clashes which killed dozens in Tripoli for the past week in northern Lebanon.
"This is not an accident," Bahout said. "Neither is what happened in Al-Anbar (province) last week" in Iraq, which has been subjected to dozens of car bombs costing 450 lives this month.
Bahout warned that the Syrian crisis is shaking all the countries around it, and Turkey, in particular, is feeling the strain of a potential realignment of the nations of the region. (end) jk.rk KUNA 301122 May 13NNNN