Fighters at prayer in the Syrian village of Aziza. Photo: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images.
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Negotiating a path to peace: from Geneva to Aleppo, via Moscow

Syrian peace talks are promising, but much will need to be agreed (and a few Gordian Knots sliced) before there can be a lasting peace.

On the surface, little seems to have been achieved in talks on the three-year-old Syrian civil war, chaired by the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and held in Montreux and Geneva. But in diplomacy, appearances can be deceptive. In the first place, despite the deep antagonisms between the Syrian sides, no one walked out of the talks, an achievement in its own right. There were, it is true, no direct discussions between the parties, but neither did they spend weeks debating the size of the table as the Americans and Vietnamese did at the Paris peace talks of 1968. On the contrary, my sense is that a modest base has been laid for future negotiations.

One of the first UN missions on which I served was in the former Yugoslavia. Almost two decades have elapsed since that country’s disintegration, and it is often forgotten that the 1995 Dayton Accords that finally brought peace occurred in the fifth year of hostilities. When it comes to Syria, at best we are at 1994: there is little prospect for an immediate end to hostilities, or even a ceasefire. The end of winter in another month and the raw sectarianism raging through the Sunni and Shia worlds of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq may indeed lead to an intensification of fighting in the coming period.

Despite an apparently gloomy outlook, it is likely that limited agreements can be reached that will be to the benefit of both sides in future weeks – exchanges of prisoners, humanitarian access, and safe passage for women, children and the wounded. The UN is quite adept at negotiating these and nothing I heard from Geneva leads me to believe that agreements of this nature are not possible – indeed, probable. The ever cautious but vastly experienced Brahimi has hinted as much.

It was Brahimi who came to the UN’s rescue in Iraq in 2003, leading its mission in that country after the Baghdad bomb attack that killed another veteran UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello. And nearly 25 years ago it was Brahimi who choreographed the 1989 Taif Agreement that brought the 14-year Lebanese civil war to an end – an experience acutely relevant to the agonies of Syria at war.

To the surprise of many observers, the main opposition alliance – the Syrian National Council (SNC), led by Ahmad Jarba – held together much better than expected at the Montreux/Geneva conference. Within days of those talks concluding, a dramatic development took place which is likely to have a profound impact. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, invited Jarba to come to Moscow immediately for talks. In itself, this is hugely welcome, even if the cost to western diplomacy’s pride is considerable, and though it is deeply worrying to the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Last August, after the debacle of the parliamentary vote on British intervention and President Barack Obama’s decision not to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons, it was Russia that stepped forward in a bold move to extricate these weapons from an already savage war in Syria. The US had little choice but to accept a Russian diplomatic initiative.

Now, for a second time, Russian diplomacy has shown itself far more agile than that of the west by inviting Jarba to Moscow. The presence of the Syrian rebel leader sends strong messages to the west as well as Damascus. Russia has managed to maintain support for Assad but at the same time opened a “second front” through the invitation to Jarba. It will undoubtedly have caused shock waves in the Syrian capital. As well as demonstrating Russia’s diplomatic prowess, it shows that Moscow is now the only capital entertaining relations with both sides in the Syrian civil war.

Jarba arrived in Moscow on 4 February. His visit was well timed, coming just before the next round of talks, due in Geneva on 10 February. There is little doubt that the regime in Damascus will feel profound disquiet at the move, but it knows it will need the Russians’ protective cover at the UN Security Council.

Yet peace can come to Syria only with the inclusion, rather than exclusion, of all parties. The ghost of Banquo in Geneva was Iran, the principal external supporter of Syria and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Without Iran’s presence, the war could easily continue another three years. To prevent that happening, the west will have to accelerate its search, together with Russia and China, for a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran. Only then will the prospect of peace be real.

Michael C Williams is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House, London, and served as a UN diplomat in Cambodia, the Balkans and the Middle East

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.