01/24/2014 11:22 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Counter Terrorism Card Backfires on Syrian Regime's Delegation in Montreux

The Montreux episode did not go as desired by the diplomacy of the axis comprising Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah, which backs the Syrian regime in Damascus. The Geneva 2 round of negotiations between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition kicked off amid mutual obduracy and a "high ceiling" for demands, a conflict in priorities, and a dispute over which frame of reference to adopt. Nevertheless, what happened in Montreux remains an achievement worth building upon consciously and prudently, away from gloating. It is important to focus on the forest and not exclusively on the trees, the future of Syria being the - dense and difficult - forest. It is going to take wisdom and perseverance, particularly on the part of the co-sponsors of Geneva 2, the United States and Russia, as well ast he United Nations. Indeed, the latter now is the proprietor of the Geneva 2 "process," through Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but also via the Security Council, which had set the stage for Geneva 2through resolution 2118. This is why the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council were present at Montreux, at the invitation of Ban Ki-moon, which stated the purpose of the conference as being the implementation of the Geneva 1 communiqué calling for the establishment of a transitional authority with full executive powers, including over security, the armed forces, and intelligence, to be agreed upon by the two sides in a negotiated settlement.

The fact that Montreux convened is in and of itself a significant development in the political-diplomatic process concerned with the Syrian crisis, and so is the mere presence of the Syrian opposition delegation, led by Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chairman Ahmad Jarba, in the same room with an official delegation representing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. To be sure, this is an admission that the Baath Party's monopoly over power in Syria is history, and that there is an internationally recognized opposition in Syria today, no matter how hard Minister Muallem tries to belittle it by describing it as a bunch of "mercenaries."

The international consensus on the fact that the aim of Geneva 2 is to implement Geneva 1 was the main theme of the Montreux meeting, putting the axis that supports the regime in Damascus in an awkward position. This axis's diplomacy had wagered that the Syrian opposition would thwart Geneva 2, whether in the part that has to do with the international momentum in Montreux or the part that has to do with negotiations between the regime and the opposition in Geneva. The pro-regime camp made a bet on the divisions of the opposition, believing this would prevent it from attending the conference because - as the pro-regime camp thought - it would mean the opposition agreeing to Assad remaining in power until an agreement over a transitional authority is reached. But this axis's wager was foiled when the SNC attended Montreux, and expressed its willingness to negotiate with the regime in Geneva 2. Indeed, not attending the conference would have given the diplomacy of the pro-regime axis ammunition to be used in delegitimizing the opposition, while consolidating the regime's legitimacy.

For this reason perhaps, Damascus decided to add another item to the list of strict priorities that it brought to Monterux and Geneva, namely, counterterrorism, and took to challenging the legitimacy of the representation of the SNC, arguing that the real opposition is the internal Syrian opposition exclusively, while the opposition based abroad is nothing but "mercenaries." This was the strategy Walid al-Muallem carried to Montreux and presented in his opening remarks, and also in his negotiations with the UN. His logic was: Your have your priorities and we have ours. He carried the priority of counter terrorism wherever he went, coupled with the claim that the opposition representatives represented no one, and therefore, the regime had no real partner in shaping the future of Syria, while there is no alternative to it in the fight against terror. But the counter terrorism card backfired on the Syrian delegation in Montreux, as did the ploy to dismiss the frame of reference of the negotiations and to claim that the opposition delegation was not a real partner.

The UN Secretary General said that he was shocked and "disappointed" to see Damascus agree to attend the conference under the frame of reference he had stated clearly in the text of the invitation, only to subsequently declare that the purpose of the conference, according to Damascus's priorities, was the fight against terror.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took a very sharp tone against Bashar al-Assad, calling him a "one-man super-magnet for terrorism" in the region. Kerry also declared that the future of Syria "should not be about one man, [or] one family." Kerry vowed that there can be no place for a man who turned against his people with support from Iran and a terrorist group that crossed over from Lebanon, adding that the regime has no credibility, and that there can be no salvation for Syria as long as Bashar remains in power.

Damascus was hoping to diplomatically solidify what it terms intelligence partnership with Western powers in counter terrorism. Damascus leaked information that British and U.S. intelligence services and others had been scrambling to coordinate with the Syrian regime against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The regime thought that Montreux was an opportunity for political and diplomatic mobilization against terrorism, in partnership with the regime in Damascus.

However, this did not pan out, bringing another setback to Damascus and its allies in the axis consisting of Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah. This is particularly so when the Montreux international gathering gave the opportunity to SNC head Ahmad Jarba to tell the regime from an international platform: The terrorism is your terrorism.

To counter the regime's strategy based on the pretense of fighting terrorism and making this issue the alternative frame of reference to Geneva 2, the opposition launched a strategy to reinforce Geneva 2's reference and link terrorism to the regime. For this reason, Jarba deemed UN Security Council resolution 2118, which was issued regarding chemical weapons in Syria and called for holding Geneva 2, the basis for the Geneva conference.

By doing so, Jarba added to the frame of reference represented by Geneva 1 a UN Security Council resolution, which he described as a "historic resolution and a real opportunity to accomplish a political solution that would spare Syria and the region rivers of blood, and safeguard international peace and security, especially since Syria has become, thanks to the terrorism of Assad and his mercenaries, a hotbed for terrorists who constitute the other face of Assad, and who threaten peace and security in the region and the world."

Jarba leaned on Resolution 2118, which was the result of the dismantlement of the siege imposed by the Russian-Chinese veto on the Security Council, after Russia succeeded in halting the U.S. military strike that President Barack Obama had pledged to carry out, by convincing Assad's regime to destroy its chemical weapon's arsenal. This way, the opposition's strategy highlighted the additional component stated in Ban Ki-moon's invitation to Montreux and Geneva, namely, Resolution 2118. It also stressed the role of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in fighting the "mercenaries of international terrorism," including, as Jarba said, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Hezbollah.

Iran has kept itself away from Montreux and Geneva because of its insistence on "ambiguity" in its stance regarding the Geneva 1 communiqué, which effectively requires the establishment of an alternative administration to the ruling Baath regime in Syria, and also because of its excessive prevarication and diplomatic manipulation of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who strongly wanted Iran to be part of the Geneva process and to be present at the table in Montreux to use its newfound moderation to influence the regime in Damascus.

For this reason, Ban Ki-moon tried to find a way to overcome the obstacle represented by Iran's failure to endorse the frame of reference for Geneva 2, almost ruining the Montreux meeting when he wagered on Iran's good will and declared that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifhad expressed to him verbally Iran's willingness to push for the success of Montreux and Geneva 2, and that Iran understood well that the reference point was Geneva 1.

If Tehran was honest about this stance, this would have truly been a paradigm shift in the Iranian position, and a clear indication of the triumph of the logic of the moderate camp in Iran, represented by President Hassan Rohani, over the logic of the hardliner camp represented by the IRGC. If Iran had truly endorsed the Geneva 1 communiqué, this would have had major implications, not only for Syria, but also Lebanon and the whole region.

So when Ban Ki-moon announced that, based on Iran's verbal pledges, he was going to invite Iran to attend the conference, there was a wave of optimism about a new chapterin the Middle East, but this soon dissipated. It soon became clear to Ban Ki-moon that Tehran was not going to issue a statement confirming its verbal pledges. The Secretary-General felt deceived and was furious when he realized the he might have been naïve to believe that what he had heard from Javad Zarifhad removed the deliberate ambiguity from the Iranian position.

By rescinding the invitation, following U.S., French, and British pressure, and also as a result of the SNC's threats to withdraw from the conference unless Tehran explicitly accepts Geneva 1 as the reference for the talks, Ban Ki-moon exposed the Iranian stance, though perhaps inadvertently. His goal was to ensure Iran would be present in Montreux, but Tehran issued a statement on the following day in which it rejected Geneva 1 as the reference point and said it would not attend on its basis, prompting Ban Ki-moon to withdraw the invitation and express his "disappointment" over the Iranian position and conduct.

Ban Ki-moon may own the Geneva 2 "process," but the real burden falls on the shoulders of the United States and Russia. Yet the gap between the two powers is wide, and Russia may have endorsed Geneva 1 as the point of reference believing that Geneva 2 may never see the light. It is not clear whether the Russian position that accepts the implementation of Geneva 1 as the purpose of Geneva 2 was honest from the get-go, because Moscow has so far clung to Assad remaining in power, at least until the next presidential election, and has not consented to a transitional political process by means of a transitional authority with full powers that would replace the regime. Perhaps the aim is to assign different roles to Tehran, Moscow, Damascus, and Beijing, but more than one surprise has since taken place, and this axis's strategy has now suffered serious setbacks. There could also be differences between the Russian and the Iranian positions.

Moscow and with it Beijing finds itself now in a position that exposes it to accountability. Russian-Chinese diplomacy had paralyzed the Security Council through a dual veto that was wielded three times, to avoid an actual implementation of Geneva 1, though the latter had been endorsed unanimously by the five permanent members of the Security Council. This diplomacy has enabled Bashar al-Assad to hold on to power, and the Assad obstacle has so far been the most intractable. Now, the Syrian regime's diplomacy is endeavoring to replace the idea of a transitional authority in Syria with the term "expanded government" in Damascus, which would comprise regime figures infused with some elements from the domestic opposition exclusively, with the full exclusion of the opposition abroad.

Moscow wants the talks in Geneva to be at a bare minimum level to deflect blame, without real progress, until new attempts are made to blame the Syrian opposition for the failure of the peace process in Syria. Washington is saying that it is seeking convincing Russian guarantees and assurances that Bashar al-Assad would not run for another term, as a practical prelude for the concessions that need to be made by all parties, to reach a political settlement for the Syrian crisis. Both Washington and Moscow now recognize that prolonging the conflict in Syria would not curb the growth of terrorism and al-Qaeda affiliates, but only exacerbate it and push it to expand beyond the Syrian arena. This is part of why the two powers are working together on the Syrian question.

However, the gap between the U.S. and Russian attitudes are almost as deep as the gap between the Syrian regime and opposition at this juncture. This could be part of efforts to "raise the ceiling" of demands on the eve of the negotiations, or the gap could be very real. The American and Russian diplomacies might have a public escalatory face and another that is working hard on developing the features of a grand bargain, which this week looked quite far-fetched.

During the Montreux episode, the Syrian opposition and its backers scored some points. Now, it is time to invest this wisely to save Syria from the inferno ravaging the country.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi