Syria Ban Ki-moon’s Geneva Conference Invitation

On January 6 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched written invitations to a “Geneva Conference on Syria” in Switzerland to be convened under his chairmanship. The conference would open with a plenary “high-level format” in Montreux on January 22, where “international participants will be present to demonstrate their meaningful support for constructive negotiations between the Syrian parties in Geneva.” The opening ceremonies would then be followed, in Geneva beginning on January 24, by “Negotiations between the two Syrian parties, facilitated by the Joint Special Representative for Syria, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi…” Although the invitation is reasonably straightforward, some of its wording—the result of a committee effort involving the United Nations, the United States, and Russia—reflects ongoing tension between the organizers. Particularly disturbing is a passage implying that the cessation of attacks on civilians is lower in priority than the suspension of other types of criminal behavior.

The invitation letter is part of a package whose other three elements are the June 30, 2012 Final Communiqué of the Action Group for Syria, extracts from Security Council resolutions on participation of women in peace processes, and a third annex on conference rules.

Yet the heart of the invitation letter sets forward the purpose of the conference, which is to implement in full the Final Communiqué of June 2012. In particular, the Geneva Conference on Syria should aim for “agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent. As the Geneva Communiqué says, the public services must be preserved or restored. This includes the military forces and security and intelligence services. All governmental institutions and state offices must perform according to professional and human rights standards, operating under a top leadership that inspires public confidence, under the control of the transitional governing body.”

Although the above passage is not a literal rendering of the Final Communiqué language (which gave special, additional emphasis to the necessity of the intelligence services performing according to human rights and professional standards), it captures well the central concept of Geneva 2012: the ability of Bashar al-Assad and his enablers to participate in Syria’s transitional governance would depend entirely on the (unlikely) consent of opposition negotiators; but that the principle of continuity of governmental institutions and qualified staff should be respected. Russia and the regime will probably argue that the language of the invitation implies that governmental institutions (including military, security, and intelligence services) should be preserved essentially as is. The United States and the opposition will point out, quite accurately, that they cannot be preserved as is and also “perform according to professional and human rights standards.” Those criteria would surely mandate, among other things, the complete restructuring of Syria’s intelligence community, whose senior officers are blood-drenched enforcers for the Assad-Makhlouf clan and whose collective performance reflects the antithesis of human rights and professionalism.

What is lacking in the invitation letter is a clear statement of the purpose to be served by the transitional governing body: leading the way to the creation of a Syrian state that (according to the Final Communiqué) is “genuinely democratic and pluralistic… complies with international standards on human rights… [and] offers equal opportunities and chances for all [with] no room for sectarianism or discrimination on ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other grounds.” The absence in the invitation of language on this ultimate political destination is regrettable not only on stylistic grounds. Although the language is indeed in the Final Communiqué, which is attached as Annex 1 to the invitation, it would have been useful for the Secretary-General to highlight the implicit view of the international community that two extremely destabilizing potential outcomes for Syria—survival of the Assad regime or its replacement by yet another variety of political sectarianism—are entirely inadmissible.

It is the final paragraph of the invitation letter that raises a potentially disturbing question. It does so in the context of the following passages [with emphasis added]: “The Government and all parties MUST allow immediate and full humanitarian access to all conflict-affected areas. The violence MUST end expeditiously. All attacks against civilians SHOULD cease. All parties MUST work to put an end to all terrorist acts.”

At the heart of the Syrian crisis is the protection (or lack thereof) of civilians. Although war crimes and crimes against humanity are not (according to the reports of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria) the exclusive province of the Assad regime, it is the systematic shelling, bombing, strafing, and starvation tactics of the regime that are producing the overwhelming preponderance of genocidal-like results in Syria. That this kind of behavior and the requirement for its immediate cessation inspires the word “should” as opposed to “must” gives pause to anyone evaluating the integrity and credibility of the process that the United States, Russia, and the United Nations propose to launch on January 22. If the choice of language reflects a drafting oversight, it is a serious error; one worth correcting with amended invitation letters. If it reflects the insistence of any party to the drafting process, that party should be identified.

The deliberate targeting of civilians by the regime under the pretext of the presumed presence of opposition fighters is, far and away, the greatest outrage produced by the Syrian crisis. To the extent that Iran and Russia refrain from pressuring their client to stop the crime wave and permit unfettered access for United Nations humanitarian relief agencies and personnel, they are complicit in the regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. If Tehran wishes to play a constructive role in and around Geneva, getting its client to refrain from human rights worst practices would be it. If Moscow has any seriousness at all in connection with the Geneva Conference on Syria, it knows what has to be done. And if the United States truly cares about the abomination taking place in plain sight, it will focus the entirety of its Syria-related efforts on its prompt termination. Indeed, this is a matter of “must;” not “should.”

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: (Photo: US Mission in Geneva/Flickr)