What did the 'London 11' achieve for Syria?

Posted by Caabu on 23 Oct 2013


What did the 'London 11' achieve for Syria?


Chris Doyle

22 October 2013


The Friends of Syria group spawned the ‘London 11’ meeting in the British capital on 22 October.  This was yet another conference to try to sort out a political process to resolve the Syria crisis. None has yet even come close to being successful.  A football team of Foreign Ministers gathered together to say they want Assad to go.  Meanwhile, fighting groups on the ground, the militias, the regime, barely noticed this conference, and that says it all. 


There are huge contradictions among all of the proposed political solutions. For ages, the UK and allies have supported a political solution but their self-appointed Syrian partner, the Syria National Coalition, is just not interested.  The ‘London 11’ support a political solution that does not include Assad, yet they expect his regime to turn up to talks at Geneva to confirm this. The Syria National Coalition pursues a position of military intervention yet nobody in the 'West' is willing to intervene. Both the regime and the coalition claim to be the legitimate representative of Syrians yet neither of them is.  


British Foreign Secretary, William Hague tried to repackage old themes as “new steps.” He emphasised that all 11 states had a common position.  Well, up to a point. They are united in opposing the regime but when it comes to solutions there are huge differences, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, a very public rift. A united position is vital. It would mean less chance of further dividing the Syrian opposition.  The vast array of groups vies for funds and weapons from regional powers such as Saudi, Qatar and Turkey.


Secondly, the Ministers highlighted the need to get the Syrian National Coalition to the Geneva II Conference. This will be a challenge as the coalition is nervous of reactions amongst fighting groups on the ground. Its general assembly will meet on 1 November to decide. The main constituent group, the Syria National Council, now completely dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, already announced it would not be attending.  The broader based coalition stated in its founding charter that it would not negotiate with the Assad regime, and indeed not even with the Russians.  In January, its then leader Muazz Al-Khatib issued a personal statement that he would be prepared to negotiate with the Assad regime but despite being popular amongst ordinary Syrians inside Syria, it was rejected by the coalition and he gave up his role.


The problem is that the Syrian National Coalition is divided, unrepresentative and ineffective. The BBC journalist, Paul Danahar, told Chatham House on 15 October that the coalition was ‘rubbish’ and ‘self-serving.’  It is widely ridiculed by Syrians for its 5-star hotel conference-hopping lifestyle.  The main fighting groups have rejected it and it has close to zero power on the ground.  Its main sponsor is now Saudi Arabia that has adopted a hawkish position, and does not see the point of Geneva.  It has been clear for a while that Saudi, furious with the Obama administration, will continue to adopt a  separate approach to Syria.


The international powers that backed this coalition have no fallback position since their ill conceived and colonial decision to anoint the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  Is this a decision to be taken by Washington, Paris, London Riyadh and Ankara? It is only the Syrian people who can confer legitimacy. So this ‘London 11’ is handcuffed to this body regardless of whether it is effective and representative.  As a result, the coalition continually tries to extract promises and concessions of the Friends of Syria group just to attend. No surprises then that Ahmed Jarba listed a whole string of demands after the meeting in a press conference that one journalist privately told me was a ‘shambles.’


The conference communiqué called for “a single delegation of the opposition, of which the Syrian National Coalition should be the heart and lead, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”  Why would other groups agree to attend under the coalition banner? And it is not clear at all under what platform the coalition would be negotiating? What is its agenda?


What is needed at Geneva - and this is admitted by UN officials - is a far broader coalition of Syrian opposition groups.  The experienced Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt made this point only the day before on 21 October.  There is also a strong case for civil society to be represented, at least to avoid the future of Syria being determined only by those with guns. Remember, of Syria’s 22 million people, only a small percentage is actually fighting.  Most ordinary Syrians just want an end to the bloodshed, an end to the nightmare and who can blame them.


Finally, foreign leaders should stop hollow sloganising about the future of Bashar Al Assad. For two years the leaders of the US, UK, France and others have been demanding that he step aside. Sadly, he will not, at least not voluntarily.  There is no military option, as US Secretary of State John Kerry stated after the conference. The US for certain will not intervene. There can then only be a politically negotiated solution.


Rather than focus on the future of one man, it is the nature of power in Syria that needs to be changed.  At some point, if you want to end the crisis, somebody has to admit that a deal has to be done with the regime, and that will mean some sharing of power.  The Presidency cannot remain as all-powerful as it was but all communities have to be part of this transition, and that will mean parts of the regime.  It means that Alawis and regime loyalists have to see a stake in the future of Syria.


The question is, when will international leaders start being honest about this as opposed to playing to the galleries to sound tough? The US and Russia have just done a deal with the Assad regime on chemical weapons that will last at least nine months. So who is kidding who?