MONTREUX, Switzerland- World powers gathered in the Swiss city of Montreux this week in a bid to broker an agreement to end Syria’s nearly three-year civil war which has killed an estimated 130,000 people and heightened tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims across the Middle East. The conference, known as Geneva II, got off to a rocky start as the Syrian government and the opposition were unable to even agree on whether the goal of the talks should be fighting terrorism or establishing a government to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime.
Walid al-Moualem, Syria’s foreign minister, said the United States and Russian-sponsored negotiations should be aimed at ending terrorism and not at creating a transitional government to guide the country, which has been ruled by the same family for 42 years, to democracy. ” We have come here to put an end to terrorism and its bitter consequences. Diplomacy and terrorism cannot go in parallel,” Moualem said. “Diplomacy must succeed by fighting terrorism.” The Syrian government characterizes all of the opposition as terrorists, lumping together anti-government protesters and secular rebels with Islamist extremists that have conducted suicide attacks and car bombings.
The official agenda for the peace talks, which are the first direct negotiations between the two sides since the conflict erupted nearly three years ago, is to agree on an interim government with full executive authority to oversee the country’s transition to a democracy. Syria’s government, which is dominated by the country’s minority Alawite sect, agreed to attend the talks, but has made clear that it has no intention of turning over the reins of power to a transitional government.
President Assad, whose father seized power in a 1971 coup, has said that he will remain president of his country, a scenario rejected by the opposition, which insists that a transitional government must exclude Assad and all the leading members of his regime.
Even as the negotiations got underway in Montreux, Syria’s government continued to insist that it would not engage in discussions about the formation of an interim government to replace Assad, who has ruled Syria since his father, former President Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000.
In the weeks leading up to the Geneva II peace talks, Syria’s fractious opposition alliance, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was divided over whether to attend the conference unless Assad’s government agreed that the agenda for the talks was to negotiate the creation of an interim governing authority to oversee the country’s transition to a democratic, pluralistic state. The loosely configured body, which has approximately 120 members, eventually voted to attend the talks, although about a third of its members boycotted the vote.
The splits in the opposition alliance were partially the result of a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels battling Assad’s government. The two oil rich kingdoms are the chief financial supporters of the insurgents fighting the Syrian government and back opposing factions within the opposition alliance. The ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for influence over Syria’s opposition coalition has continually inhibited the alliances’ ability to act as a cohesive force and arrive at unified decisions.
Syria’s nearly three-year civil war, which pits rebels largely drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority against a government controlled by the country’s minority Alawite sect and supported by Shia Iran, has stoked Sunni-Shia tensions across the Middle East, particularly in the sectarian tender boxes of Iraq and Lebanon.
Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy force Hezbollah have backed Assad, a longtime ally of both Tehran and Hezbollah, while Sunni gulf states and Turkey have supported the Sunni insurgents, buttressing the rebels through the provision of light weapons and cash. Both sides seem to view the Syrian conflict as a proxy war between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
– Eric Erdahl