The peace talks and the pawns of war

Friday 05/02/2016

UN-brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Geneva run the risk of unleashing an upsurge of fighting as each side seeks to gain ground to aid its negotiating position.

Opposition delegate Bassma Kodmani said bombings had increased in the week ahead of the Geneva talks, which began on January 29th. “In preparations for the negotiations, everything has intensified. The sieges have become total,” she said.

On January 31st, the United Nations said Mouadamiya, a rebel-held town of 45,000 on the south-western edge of Damascus, faced a new siege by government forces.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for attacks in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Damascus, according to Amaq, a news agency that sup­ports the militant group. It said two operations “hit the most im­portant stronghold of Shia militias in Damascus”. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at more than 60, including 25 Shia fighters.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attacks were “clearly aimed to disrupt the at­tempts to start a political process” to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.

In the Syrian conflict, as in every conflict, there comes a phase in the war when the fighting can no longer be considered a viable solu­tion and peace begins to look like a more acceptable option.

But as the peace negotiators sit down to silence the guns, the fighters hunker down for a last spurt of heavy fighting.

This is where the Syrian conflict is. After nearly five years of con­tinuous violence that has ruined the country and has turned close to half its population — 10 million people — into refugees, all eyes are turned to Geneva amid hopes that the antagonists can reach a lasting solution.

Now, as Syria’s warlords con­vene in Geneva the conflict enters into a precarious phase.

In this dreadful war, as is often the case in conflict negotiations, there is that twilight moment, a time of last-minute madness in which the hell that is war takes on an additional degree of insanity. This is when the politicians take control of the war machine from the combatants — remotely, of course — so as to give them better leverage in negotiations.

These are at times the harshest hours for those in the front-line trenches. The men and women and, in some cases the children, engaged in defending their terri­tory are aware that peace talks are just around the corner and that every second of every minute of every hour counts.

This is where the cold-blood­edness of the politicians is best reflected as they move their men about the battlefield much as pawns are shuffled around a chess board.

This is a certain insane absurd­ity that surrounds most peace talks. The most memorable ex­amples were the talks to end the Vietnam War. While young men and women died in the jungles of South-East Asia, negotiators sit­ting in the comfort of the Avenue Kleber Conference Centre in Paris haggled for weeks over the shape of the table and which side got to sit where. All the while fight­ing raged with renewed intensity because both sides knew the end of the war was near and each side wanted to make the most territo­rial gains.

However, the winning side has to carefully balance just how much ground it takes so as not to put the other side into too big a defeat, causing them to leave negotiations.

In Geneva, where the Syrian peace talks were being conducted, opposing sides would not even meet in the same room. Instead UN negotiators are forced to shuttle between the delegations’ separate areas.

The Syrian peace talks are prob­ably as complicated as were the Lebanese peace talks in the luxury of a five-star hotel in Lausanne in 1984. The sheer number of parties involved, each armed with a list of demands and expectations contribute to the complexity of negotiations.

At one point in the 15-year Leba­nese civil war there were no fewer than 98 armed groups of vari­ous sizes and importance, some controlling no more than a single street, others welded more power than the national army.

In Syria, the opposition is also divided and composed of a multi­tude of parties and armed militias that spend as much time fighting each other as they do the central government they want to over­throw. They have yet to familiarise themselves with the ancient Ro­man adage of divide and conquer.