As we approach next week’s Geneva II Conference, the desire of the majority of Syrians, the moderate majority, for a just and sustainable resolution to the conflict in Syria must be addressed.
At Sunday’s meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ Foreign Secretary William Hague, Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and representatives from the Gulf States were of one voice in supporting President Jarba and the Syrian Opposition Coalition and were in full agreement that Assad has no future in Syria. Even privately the Russians and Iranians are increasingly coming to the realisation that it is a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ Assad goes. The question is how much blood, innocent Syrian blood must be spilled between now and then.
The challenges are many but Geneva II must focus on three core issues.
First, Geneva II must chart a transition to a Syria free of Assad’s rule. The diplomatic success on removing chemical weapons must not detract from the the core challenge: the removal of a ruthless dictator who continues to kill, maim and drive from their ruined towns and cities thousands with conventional weapons. Today there are over nine million internally displaced people in Syria, 2.3 million in exile as refugees in neighbouring countries and over 130,000 dead. The international community led by the Friends of Syria must do everything possible to support the Syrian Opposition Coalitions vision for a Syria that is a free, democratic country where human rights are safeguarded by rule of law and freedom of religion and the respect of minorities is paramount. The SOC represents the broad spectrum of Syrian society including Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and most importantly Alawis. They represent the moderate majority.
Secondly, Geneva II must redress the military disadvantage faced by the Syrian Free Army, which receives no weapons from the international community to defend themselves and their communities. On the one hand the Regime, which has over 300,000 soldiers receives support from Iran through support on the ground from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, training, light weapons, munitions and electronic intelligence and from Russia through their support with military advisors, heavy weapons and missile systems. On the other hand, their Al Qa’eda linked rivals ISIS and Jabat al Nusra, while still relatively small (up to 15,000) receive support from extremist networks primarily in the Gulf. The FSA is a broad coalition of ordinary citizens and defectors and number up to 150,000 militia men who are trying to protect their communities. But they are literally running out of guns and bullets. It is no surprise then that they are being driven into the hands of the better funded better supported extremists. Doing nothing is no longer an option. If we fail to provide the means for the FSA to defend themselves and their communities, the combination of Assad and the extremists could annihilate the only opposition who are moderate and in favour of a peaceful solution. As one senior member of the SOC said to me last week, ‘while the talking continues my people continue to get slaughtered and bombed in their thousands. We need to protect ourselves.’
Thirdly, Geneva II needs to put pressure on the regime to allow a humanitarian corridor and a safe zone in Syria. In the 3 years since the civil war started over 2.3 million people have left the country into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. This is putting enormous social and political pressure on these countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan. Unlike other Arab Springs which were implosions, the Syrian Arab Spring is an explosion that is ‘infecting’ its neighbours. Combined with the 9 million internally displaced people, we have one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
Overall, Geneva II must do everything it can to bolster the Syrian Opposition Coalition, by creating a secure hub for moderates, capable of defending itself and establishing a democratic, secular and tolerant future for Syria.