We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline, to make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time…
Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water"
Mimicking the tragedy narrated in the classic rock ballad, peace talks on Syria between the government and opposition groups (colloquially called Geneva II) at the same location predictably went down in flames. Along with it India’s avowed position of seeking a comprehensive political settlement of the crisis and ruling out any military solution lies in tatters.
The warring Syrians could not even agree on sending a United Nations aid convoy for civilians trapped in the besieged city of Homs. The only silver lining is that neither side walked out of the bitter talks, tacitly accepted the 2012 communiqué (from the so-called Geneva I meeting) as a basis for discussions, and agreed to meet around 10 February; but this is clutching at straws.
The long-anticipated talks, which had a less than auspicious beginning, were doomed from the start. First, in a brazen, though foolhardy, initiative UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to join Geneva II barely five days before it was to begin. Ban’s move was poorly timed at best or a gross miscalculation of the political perils at worst. While Iran’s participation in any long-term Syrian solution would be imperative, its presence at Montreux last week would have been premature and disruptive.
Predictably, the US opposed the invite and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) threatened not to attend. While Washington argued that Tehran’s participation should be conditioned on its explicit support for the full implementation of the Geneva I communiqué, it was evident that Iran’s presence even as the Congress opposes the contentious nuclear agreement was a political bridge too far for the Obama administration.
Unsurprisingly, under pressure, Ban meekly rescinded the invitation to Iran within 24 hours, which in turn weakened the standing of the UN and its mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Second, while the two key sponsors, Washington and Moscow, had their reasons to push for the talks—the US because it has ruled out military action for now and Russia because it wants to protect its ally, Assad—they showed far less incentive to force a successful outcome that challenged the status quo.
This, ironically, is on account of the rising role of the Al-Qaeda-linked extremists groups and the perception that any transitional power-sharing arrangement (as in Iraq) even with Assad might be more vulnerable to such groups.
For India, one of the 30 participating countries, the talks were an opportunity to see the triumph of diplomacy and negotiations over military action. New Delhi had declared its support for the “full implementation of Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012,…leading to the formation of a transitional governing body and to be followed by democratically held elections". Moreover, India “being deeply conscious of the humanitarian dimension of the conflict…prioritized humanitarian activities".
The spectacular failure of the Syrians on both the political and humanitarian fronts has put India’s objectives in jeopardy and reflects the perils of failed negotiations. This is partly on account of India’s sporadic engagement with Syria—it was part of an IBSA delegation in 2011. India later sent a senior diplomat to Syria on the eve of the latest talks after a gap of two years. Besides, even India’s limited engagement is primarily with Damascus rather than the SNC and its affiliates.
To achieve its goals, India will have to step up its engagement and also work to bridge the gap between the opposition and Assad’s regime. Otherwise, as the song warns: time is running out and it will lose the race.
W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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