Russia is adamant about holding the Geneva 2 conference on the Syrian crisis in November, whether Saudi Arabia agrees to attend or not. Moscow believes that Iran would most definitely be present at the conference whether the Arabs attend it or not, irrespective of the fact that Syria is an Arab nation. To be sure, Russia insists on holding Geneva 2 on time, that is to say, the time it set, before the end of this month, because Moscow is confident that the Syrian opposition would not be able to gather its ranks and send a unified delegation to the conference in this short space of time. Moreover, Russia insists on this timing because it feels reassured by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's reassurance, in turn, vis-à-vis his current situation in the wake of the international agreement on a UN Security Council resolution to dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal, and the fact that Assad is now a necessary partner in the implementation of the resolution. Moscow does not want to lose the "momentum" of current Syrian events, embodied in the weakness of the U.S. administration and its willingness to comply with any opportunity that exempts it from responsibility, whether militarily or politically. Russia is adamant about holding Geneva 2, because it is certain it would fail. For this reason, it insists on its timing to justify a new stage of the Syrian crisis, where there would be no other serious actors influencing Syria's future except the ruling regime in Damascus, because the alternative would be either al-Nusra Front and its ilk, or for the Syrian opposition to refrain from engaging in the search for a political solution for Syria's future.
For these reasons, the Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday must make a decision that would head off the Russian wager on the failure of Geneva 2. They must draw a conscious strategy away from arbitrariness and one that does not fall into the trap of reactions or provocations. The current stage is one that requires drinking from the poisoned chalice, instead of outbidding oneself and implementing others' strategies. The Arab ministers who will meet to discuss their position on Geneva 2 in Cairo must come out with an initiative that would astonish all those who wagered on the longstanding record of incapacity and shortsightedness that they link to Arab decisions.
The Syrian opposition, which has demanded an Arab cover for participating in Geneva 2, must go first to Cairo, with a conscious strategy away from parasitism and the false belief that by merely going to Geneva 2, it would be overcoming its childishness that has so far dwarfed it. Go to Geneva, Syrian opposition, and demand reference points without falling prey to any noes. Indeed, the theme of Geneva 2 is "transition" from the ruing regime to a new regime. This in and of itself is a principle that must be seized and built upon, so go to Geneva to forestall the wager by Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus on blaming you for the failure of the conference. Take advantage of the protests of Arab foreign ministers so that it may become a working plan that sets the standards and features for participation in Geneva 2, and draws a strategy that renders the UN a serious partner responsible for defining the reference point of the conference and the conditions for participation in it. For one thing, this is not the time for digging another hole for the Syrian opposition to fall in. It is not the time to grumble and blame others. It is the time of consolidating ranks, biting one's tongue, and overturn the wager on the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition.
Logically speaking, in light of what happened during his tour of the region, the joint envoy of the UN and the Arab League in Syria, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhar Brahimi, may be preparing to tender his resignation - this time seriously. All those concerned with Brahimi's tour have thwarted his mission, and even he has thwarted his own mission as a result of his contempt for the opposition and those behind it, in conjunction with his insistence on a role for Iran that he knew well many Arab Gulf nations oppose, at the negotiating table in the Geneva 2 conference being prepared to discuss Syria's future. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates refused to receive Brahimi. In Turkey, his reception was almost even worse, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet him and President Abdullah Gul met him for a very short time in what resembled a mere formality. In Iran, officials received Brahimi and his statements warmly, after he made Iran's participation in Geneva 2 a crucial, indispensable matter, but they did not attach to his farewell any commitment to Geneva 2, which should be the reference point for Geneva 2. As is their habit pursuant to their mastery of the art of negotiations and the principle of "take and ask for more," the Iranian officials smiled as they evaded the commitment, after they got what they wanted from the UN-Arab League envoy and put him in their pockets. This is how Brahimi fell, or set himself up, into the existing polarization. While he may deserve a lot of criticism and censure, he does not deserve and will not accept to be humiliated. For this reason, he is most probably on the verge of resigning. If so, let him do it quickly so that his resignation may not, in turn, become a commodity in this polarization. But whatever the fate and role of Brahimi may ultimately be, it is still imperative for the Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo to focus exclusively on Syria and Geneva 2, and to double check what they want after Brahimi's departure - that is, if Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov allows the resignation of his friend, or if the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accepts it. Indeed, both men want Brahimi at the driver's seat in their accord over Geneva 2, and would strongly object to his departure.
John Kerry does not take the Gulf's fury with Brahimi seriously, and he is in complete denial of the extent of Saudi wrath against the UN and the U.S. He is basing his calculations about who will attend and who will miss Geneva 2 on old facts regarding U.S.-Saudi relations. For this reason, he has been reassuring the UN that Riyadh would eventually come to the conference. Most probably, he is not interpreting well the Saudi positions seen recently on the U.S. and the UN, because of their eager preoccupation with Iran and their willingness to "legitimize" Tehran's role in Syria through the negotiating table.
Mending relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance, and ultimately, this is a bilateral matter no matter how strongly the Iranian element figures in them, or no matter how radical the differences regarding Syria may be. Washington and Riyadh realize that the historical relationship between the two countries would not collapse, but Saudi dissatisfaction with the U.S. policy on Syria and Iran is no charade. To be sure, it goes beyond being mere discontent with U.S. policy, because what Saudi diplomacy needs falls into the category of the balance of power in the Middle East, and U.S. preparation for legitimizing the Iranian regional role in the Arab world, especially in two crucial Arab nations, namely, Iraq and Syria. For this reason, Kerry would be mistaken if he assumes that this is a passing cloud.
Kerry would be mistaken, and would be even implicating the UN, if he suggests to the latter that Saudi Arabia would eventually agree to go to Geneva 2. This is a bad bet not only because of what is presupposes, but also because of what it implies. For one thing, it would be more prudent for the UN to earnestly seek to repair relations with Saudi Arabia, as this is in the interest of both parties. But it is also important for Riyadh to seek engagement, rather than a boycott, as part of a strategy aimed at mending and developing ties with the international organization.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his deputy Jan Eliasson - who is head of the contact group following up developments in Syria - must go to the policy-drawing board to reassess their options now in the wake of the failure of Brahimi's tour. If he wants to continue working towards holding Geneva 2 then they must first personally work on repairing relations with Saudi Arabia, given the latter's influence on the Syrian opposition, without whose participation Geneva 2 would not be possible to convene.
Second, Ban Ki-moon, Eliasson, and the team supporting the Special Representative at the UN Secretariat's headquarters in New York - including Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman - must stop their prevarication when it comes to specifying the reference point for Geneva 2 and the eligibility of those who would participate in the conference. Indeed, it is not sufficient to say that the invitation letter for attending the meeting will stipulate that Geneva 1 would be the reference point for Geneva 2, that is to say, launching a transitional political in Syria through a body agreed upon by the government and the opposition with full executive powers. Prior assurances must be obtained that the nations that will participate in Geneva 2 would recognize the authority of Geneva 1. This should be a precondition for the countries that will be invited to Geneva 2. The battle over the interpretation of Geneva 1 consumed nearly a year and a half, and the issue is yet to be resolved among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite the American willingness to "paper over" it now. To be sure, the "Assad knot" remains as existant as ever, and there is nothing to suggest that Russia - or Iran for that matter - is willing to let go of its insistence on Assad's survival as a actual and influential actor in the transitional process, and even in power in Syria. For this reason, Moscow and Tehran are equivocating over Geneva 1. It is understood that Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, should be present at Geneva 2, regardless of its clarity or ambiguity over Geneva 1. But there is no need for just anyone to be invited to Geneva 2, when such a party is carrying ambiguity and evasiveness when asked about its position on establishing a body governing the political transition with full powers to run the country, because the fact of the matter is that Tehran does not approve of this.
Ban Ki-moon and Eliasson must recall - nay remind the world - that the number of Syrian casualties at the time Geneva 1 was held in June 2012 was about 10,000. Today, this number has exceeded 110,000, while political battles continue over the interpretation of something that was agreed upon unanimously in the Geneva 1 communiqué.
They must start to think about their direct role in making Geneva 2 happen in the event Brahimi resigns. This is an occasion for their necessary involvement in the Syrian tragedy, so as not to appear as though they are in a permanent state of celebration over having the Syrian issue return to the UN through the gateway of chemical weapons, on board the bandwagon of U.S.-Russian accord that restored consensus to the UN Security Council regarding the resolution calling for dismantling the Syrian chemical weapon arsenal. Indeed, it is time to wake up from excessive celebration - sometimes for illusory reasons - when reality on the ground is recording non-stop bloodshed, ushering in a dangerous outbreak of the Syrian conflict on Lebanese territory.
The UN must not be a partner in the Russian strategy that insists on holding Geneva 2 on time in order to thwart it, and this is the direct responsibility of Ban Ki-moon and Eliasson. The Secretariat must adjust its course because it is on the tip of the volcano. More importantly, and because it is supposed to be the epitome of moral leadership, the Secretariat must stop hiding behind the UN Security Council's failure at times, or its consensus at others. When it comes to the issue of Geneva 2, it is the Secretariat that holds the key to its convening. So let Ban Ki-moon and Jan Eliasson roll up their sleeves and engage strongly in the effort to make Geneva 2 a success, instead of hiding in the shadows of what the U.S. and Russia decide.