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Little hope for peace

Bettina Marx / cmk
January 21, 2014

The West has been pushing for a peace conference on Syria for some time. The first such meeting in Geneva in 2012 ended without success. And the expectations for Geneva II are low.

UN Geneva Conference on Syria 20.12.2013
Image: Getty Images

Perhaps German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's confidence is real. But maybe it's just wishful thinking ahead of the Syria conference, set to begin in Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday (22.01.2014).

In any case, Steinmeier said at the meeting of the "Friends of Syria" in Paris in early January that "2014 could be the decisive year for an entire region." He pointed out that an agreement in the nuclear dispute with Iran is within reach, the two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be realized and an end to the bloodshed in Syria is possible.

Far from peace

But in the German parliament recently, Steinmeier was less confident, saying "we are far, far from peace." Nevertheless, he added, the door has opened a crack after the international community succeeded in convincing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon his chemical weapons stockpiles.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Steinmeier: 2014 could be a decisive year for the Middle EastImage: Getty Images

"We mustn't underestimate the meaning of that development," said Steinmeier. The agreement on the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons not only failed to prevent the seemingly inevitable next step in the conflict's escalation, but it also broke through the impasse in the UN Security Council, leaving Russia and the US ready for a limited cooperation - the one tangible success in the long diplomatic struggle to defuse the Syrian conflict. The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons "could be the first decisive step" in that process, said Steinmeier. Germany has also contributed to that success, not least in its willingness to destroy the deadly weapons at an army facility in Lower Saxony.

Who will come to Switzerland?

Until recently, there were hopes in Berlin that the fragmented Syrian opposition would come to the negotiating table in Montreux. Steinmeier said he had great sympathy for the difficult situation in which Syria's moderate opposition currently finds itself stuck. They have long been fighting on two fronts, on one side against the old Assad regime and on the other against radical Islamist and terrorist organizations.

Nevertheless, there will be no solution to the conflict without the participation of moderate forces. "The more confusing the fronts, the stronger our belief that a political solution is the only way out," said Steinmeier, adding that the German government would devote all its energy to this solution.

But it's not only the opposition forces that play an important role in the search for a solution in Syria. The civil war has become a proxy war, entangling not only diverse rebel groups and jihadists but also the hegemonic powers of the Middle East. For that reason, Berlin lawmakers of every political stripe pushed for Iran and Saudi Arabia to be included in the Syria peace talks.

Jan van Aken The Left Party
Van Aken recently traveled to northern SyriaImage: www.jan-van-aken.de/

Ahead of Monday's decision to exclude Iran from the peace talks, following rebel threats to boycott the meeting, Philipp Missfelder, the foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, said he had hoped Tehran would make its influence felt, either directly or through representatives. Jan van Aken, a member of the Left party, has also called for the involvement of regional powers.

"A solution for Syria is only possible if all relevant forces are represented," van Aken told DW. That included Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, however, ethnic and religious groups such as the Kurds and the Assyrian Orthodox Church must be represented by their own delegations.

Travels in Syria

Van Aken has just returned from a trip to northeast Syria, where he visited the Qamishli area on the Turkish border where the Kurds have set up several semi-autonomous enclaves. While there, he got the impression that the Kurds wanted to remain integrated in a federal Syrian state, and weren't hoping for their own Kurdish state.

Syria's Aleppo, destruction 17.12.2013
The conflict in Syria has been going on since March 2011, with the death toll now over 100,000Image: Mohmmed Al Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images

According to van Aken, the situation in the pacified areas was relatively quiet and the supply situation satisfactory, despite the many refugees. He called on the German government to increase humanitarian aid to the region and to support the upcoming elections in the Kurdish region. In addition, van Aken said Germany needed to put pressure on Turkey to open its borders to allow trade and development in the Syrian border area.

Van Aken was cautious when looking ahead to this week's conference in Switzerland. He doesn't expect much more than a ceasefire to come out of the talks - but even that would be a big step forward.

With or without Assad

Rolf Mützenich, the deputy parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, is also hoping for a ceasefire, "even if only for a few hours." A foreign policy expert who has been heavily involved with the Middle East for quite some time, he told DW that he is deeply frustrated with the situation in Syria.

After three years of war and violence, Mützenich said the country is on the brink of breaking apart into different regions and ethnic groups. In addition, the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are overwhelmed with the influx of Syrian refugees. Mützenich has called on Germany to do more to relieve the pressure in these fragile states.

At this time, he doesn't want to discuss any post-conflict scenarios. Even the question of whether Syrian President Assad could still play a role in a future Syria is still up in the air. "I'm at a loss," admitted Mützenich.

Bashar al-Assad 26. Sept 2013
Assad has refused to step downImage: Reuters

At the first Syria conference in Geneva in the summer of 2012, the Friends of Syria stressed that there was no future in Syria with Assad. In Berlin, meanwhile, talk on this subject has become more cautious.

"We have always said that a secure future for the country could only be without Assad," said Missfelder. But this statement must now be "relativized or corrected, because Assad's military strength has been massively underestimated in the West."

With Assad in power that is no guarantee for peace, "but a situation without Assad is now seen as being more dangerous or difficult than it was at the beginning of the war," said Missfelder.