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Middle East and Africa

Syria: Three Major Issues Top Geneva Talks

The Syrian crisis is no longer just a Syrian problem. This is what has been said for over a year but the situation has deteriorated in the last weeks. While the big powers tried to save the conference of Geneva II even before it took place last 22 January. In fact things have proceeded more quickly. On the one hand Lebanon with a series of attacks against increasingly higher targets, as well as the uncontrolled and unverified rumours of a possible military confrontation between Hezbollah and the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and beyond the Syrian borders. On the other hand Iraq, with the Jihadist insurrection in the Sunnite region which marks the political failure of al-Maliki’s government. And let us not forget the Kurdish problem, greatly undervalued but potentially explosive also for Turkey.



And yet, perhaps it is the perception that the conflict is spreading, the spectacle of devastation and the threat of the Somali scene could bring about a healthy shock. At least this is the hope. Actually Syrian diplomacy has had no role in the situation from the beginning of the revolt in 2011 to the summer of 2013 due to reciprocal vetoes, cynicism and the thrust placed by those contending in a military solution. Then, last September, Pope Francesco’s appeal overturned the cards. An agreement on nuclear power followed which allowed Iran to return to international position, including the Syrian negotiation. Now it is time for the Geneva conference. Could this represent the ‘beginning of the desired peace pact’, as Pope Francesco himself hoped for some days ago?



In fact, the challenges the conference has to face are enormous. First and foremost is the concrete risk that Geneva II might simply become a propaganda parade where each one shoots (mediatically) the adversary. In order to start a negotiation there must be at least a minimum of reciprocal recognition. But if the premise is that ‘all rebels are terrorists’ or that ‘Bashar al-Asad must die’ it will not be easy to accept the principle of a political solution even if the fact that all sides accept to sit around the same table is already a positive result.



The second problematic aspect is the actual control on the spot that those called to Geneva can boast of. It is not even clear if all the military undertakings are planned at the centre or how the chain of command works but the problem is especially dramatic for the opposition given that neither al-Nusra nor ISIL sit at the negotiating table. In the meantime the dossier on terrorism is becoming more and more pressing and today no group seems to control common criminal violence which is based on sectarian hatred.



The third problem is, in fact, sectarianism. The regime has bet on this. The Jihadist answer with bloody slaughters of Alawites, Druze and Christians. No matter how much militarily successful al-Asad is, the fact remains that the Sunnite represent 70% of the population: any solution must include them. The development of the war, however, took a different direction. The more the conflict becomes confessional, the further the solution is.



With these premises it will be difficult to arrive at an immediate ceasing of the violence. But even an agreement suspending the flow of arms and foreign militant activists would be a success, because the ceasing of fighting and the pre-condition for all forms of reconciliation. In this intricate situation, as the Vatican reminded us, there is however an absolute priority: the civilians.



Just before Christmas one of the cards I received particularly struck me. It was the photograph, on skype, of a residential area in Aleppo devastated by fire. Since the summer of 2012 the great city of the North has been the centre of a bloody series of attacks and counter attacks between the rebels and the government forces. On the front line we have civilians attacked, entrapped in an ever more difficult humanitarian situation while the cost of food and oil (essential for the winter) soared sky-high. The horrible seen of Isra’ al-Masri, the child who died of hunger in the Palestine refugee camp, south of Damascus, is not unfortunately an isolated case. The photograph with a message was sent by a friend. “The fighting is outside the city, but every now and then they shoot missiles and bullets also in the city. This time it is all very near home. And it has been going on for more than a year”. Will it last much longer?