By Wayne Madsen
Unquestionably, there would be no Geneva-II conference on Syria had it not been for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s brilliant tactical strategy of offering up a positive proposal from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Syria would turn over to the West all of his country’s chemical weapons in order to avoid a Western military attack. Kerry laid down his chemical weapons stipulation at a September 2013 joint press conference in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
In answer to a reporter’s question about what Assad could do or offer in order to stop an attack from the United States and other NATO forces, Kerry responded, “Umm… sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over! All of them… without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Kerry’s voice drowned out in his last sentence because he knew he had stepped in a huge pile of barnyard excrement. It is now obvious that Kerry was worried that if Assad did what Kerry thought was impossible and actually agreed to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there would be no Western military attack on Syria because the casus belli imposed by the United States would have been removed from the table.
Lavrov quickly responded to Kerry’s half-hearted and non-serious ultimatum by announcing Assad’s acceptance of Kerry’s terms. Kerry was then forced to meet with Lavrov in Geneva where Russia and the United States agreed to a framework for chemical weapons disarmament by Syria. Unlike Kerry, who has never served as a diplomat in the field, Lavrov is a seasoned diplomat, having served the Soviet Union in Sri Lanka, mastering the Sinhala language, and working for the Russian Foreign Ministry in a variety of positions, including UN ambassador. Lavrov was a natural to be an envoy to majority Buddhist Sri Lanka, having previously worked in the majority Buddhist autonomous Russian Republic of Tuva.
Critics of Kerry who worked on his 2004 presidential campaign argue that if Kerry spent more time worried about his campaign than in his hair style, he would have defeated George W. Bush.
The shock waves that the planned military attack on Syria was on hold rippled through the ranks of the rebel Syrian National Council (SNC) in Istanbul and government corridors of power in the pro-war capitals of Ankara, Riyadh, Doha, Paris, and Jerusalem. Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin could claim credit for bringing the Middle East from the edge of war to the peace table.
The Geneva-II conference, which will actually be held in Montreux, Switzerland, follows the Geneva-I conference held under the auspices of the United Nations Action Group on Syria in June 2012. That conference, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, agreed to a transitional government for Syria composed of members of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government. Geneva-II was scheduled to have taken place in July 2013 but was postponed until September. Syria had been under pressure from the Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt, as well as from Turkey, to take part in the Geneva-I and make important concessions to the opposition. Making matters worse for Syria was the rejection by the Western powers of Iran’s participation in the talks. Syria, except for the support of Russia, would be all alone.
With the ouster of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government from power in Cairo by the pro-Syrian Egyptian military and Lavrov’s and Assad’s stunning acceptance of Kerry’s ultimatum to trade a military attack for an agreement by Syria to gibe up its chemical weapons, Damascus witnessed an immediate reversal of fortune in its favor. With the overthrow of Morsi, Assad triumphantly declared the end of political Islam as a potent force in the Middle East. Syria’s own Qatar-supported Muslim Brotherhood faction inside the rebel coalition was eclipsed by the even more radical Saudi-supported Salafists with Al Qaeda and other radical groups.
Assad was dealt another fortunate hand on June 25, 2013, when Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, abdicated in favor of his son, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. Almost immediately, Tamim began to withdraw Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The new emir gave the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, 48 hours to leave Qatar. Tamim also began to turn off the spigot of Qatari funds for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian rebels were dealt another head-spinning blow.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also began to face significant internal opposition. Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels also began to wane, especially after Syrian rebel actions inside of Turkey.
At about the same time, there were strong indications that its was Saudi-supported Syrian radical Islamists who launched a deadly chemical attack in Ghouta, near Damascus on August 21. The Western powers and much of the corporate global media attempted to pin the attack on Assad, increasing support for an American and NATO military attack on Syria. The hidden hand of Saudi intelligence and Saudi Arabia’s top spy, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was seen behind the Ghouta attack and similar chemical weapons attacks by Saudi-supplied and financed Salafist rebels both Syria and Iraq.
With reports coming out of the civil war fronts of heinously vicious attacks by Salafist Jabhat al Nusra, Taqfiri, Al Qaeda, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/al-Sham (ISIL/ISIS) radicals on minority Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Shi’as in Syria, including reports of guerrillas funded by the West of eating the organs of their victims, there was a stand-down in the provision of armaments to the rebel side by the Western powers. The large influx of pro-rebel mercenaries into Syria from countries like France, Britain, the United States, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, and Germany also alarmed Western countries. There was a fear that after Western citizens fighting for the Syrian rebels were victorious in Syria, they would turn their attention to Europe and North America in a manner similar to the attacks by Al Qaeda on the West following the establishment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Elements of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army began to engage in bitter combat with the Saudi-supplied Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood forces. While the rebels fought each other, Assad’s forces were able to regain control of much of the country, save for areas along the Turkish border and a few pockets around Damascus and other Syrian cities.
The failure of the United States to attack Syria, coupled with the later outreach by Washington to Iran and the opening of direct bilateral talks between the two nations, also chilled relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia. Prince Bandar was no longer seen by Washington as a trustworthy partner, especially after his reported offer to President Putin of calling off Al Qaeda and Salafist attacks on the Winter Olympics in Sochi in return for Russia’s abandonment of support for Assad. The Saudi offer was rejected by Moscow. News of the proposal provided further evidence of the links between the Saudis and Al Qaeda attacks around the world, including the presence of 15 Saudi nationals among the 19 alleged 9/11 terrorists.
Because Assad’s situation on the ground in Syria was much improved from a year before, the Syrian National Council almost voted to accept participation in Geneva-II. Some SNC members voted against joining Geneva-II, hoping instead for continued Western pressure to have Assad unconditionally leave office. However, the West opposed the rejectionist front and strong-armed the SNC into joining the Geneva-II talks. The West, in return, opposed any role in Syria for Assad in a transitional government and continued to try to freeze Iran out of the talks. However, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to participate in Geneva-II and Iran accepted. It is clear that Assad, before Geneva-II, is in his strongest position since the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion. The rebels agreed to a cease fire in Aleppo and an exchange of prisoners with Damascus. A year earlier, any such agreement with the Assad government by the rebels would have been rejected out-of-hand.
In the week before the commencement of the January 22 Geneva-II talks, Assad is in the driver’s seat. To the contrary of what the United States and the other Western powers want, Assad will continue to play a dominant role in Syrian political life, merely because of his own tenacity and the total collapse of the anti-Assad coalition.