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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On the "one-state" solution to Israel and Palestine, what did Donald Trump mean?

The US President seemed to dismantle two decades of foreign policy in his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu. 

If the 45th President of the United States wasn’t causing enough chaos at home, he has waded into the world’s most intricate conflict – Israel/Palestine. 

Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump made an apparently off-the-cuff comment that has reverberated around the world. 

Asked what he thought about the future of the troubled region, he said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.”

To the uninformed observer, this comment might seem fairly tame by Trump standards. But it has the potential to dismantle the entire US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Trump said he could "live with" either a two-state or one-state solution. 

The "two-state solution" has become the foundation of the Israel-Palestine peace process, and is a concept that has existed for decades. At its simplest, it's the idea that an independent state of Palestine can co-exist next to an independent Israel. The goal is supported by the United Nations, by the European Union, by the Arab League, and by, until now, the United States. 

Although the two-state solution is controversial in Israel, many feel the alternative is worse. The idea of a single state would fuel the imagination of those on the religious right, who wish to expand into Palestinian territory, while presenting liberal Zionists with a tricky demographic maths problem - Arabs are already set to outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories by 2020. Palestinians are divided on the benefits of a two-state solution. 

I asked Yossi Mekelberg, Professor of International Relations at Regent's University and an associate fellow at Chatham House, to explain exactly what went down at the Trump-Netanyahu press conference:

Did Donald Trump actually mean to say what he said?

“Generally with President Trump we are into an era where you are not so sure whether it is something that happens off the hoof, that sounds reasonable to him while he’s speaking, or whether maybe he’s cleverer than all of us put together and he's just pretending to be flippant. It is so dramatically opposite from the very professorial Barack Obama, where the words were weighted and the language was rich, and he would always use the right word.” 

So has Trump just ditched a two-state solution?

“All of a sudden the American policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, a two-state solution, isn’t the only game in town.”

Netanyahu famously didn’t get on with Obama. Is Trump good news for him?

“He was quite smug during the press conference. But while Netanyahu wanted a Republican President, he didn’t want this Republican. Trump isn’t instinctively an Israel supporter – he does what is good for Trump. And he’s volatile. Netanyahu has enough volatility in his own cabinet.”

What about Trump’s request that Netanyahu “pull back on settlements a little bit”?

“Netanyahu doesn’t mind. He’s got mounting pressure in his government to keep building. He will welcome this because it shows even Trump won’t give them a blank cheque to build.”

Back to the one-state solution. Who’s celebrating?

“Interestingly, there was a survey just published, the Palestinian-Israel Pulse, which found a majority of Israelis and a large minority of Palestinians support a two-state solution. By contrast, if you look at a one-state solution, only 36 per cent of Palestinians and 19 per cent of Israel Jews support it.”

 

 

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.