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The roadmap to Damascus

It is hard not to sympathise with Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat entrusted with the impossibly tricky task of mediating between the warring sides in the atrocious Syrian conflict.

In the Geneva talks last week, he was able to draw some sustenance from the Damascus regime's "concession" on Homs, one of the first urban centres to rebel against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, to the effect that women and children would be allowed safe passage out of the besieged city.

But the talks were bogged down on the issue of Assad's future. Geneva I had resolved that a transitional authority would be instituted to manage, well, a transition to a more democratic set-up. In the eyes of the Syrian National Council (SNC), this involved Assad's departure. Representatives of the Damascus regime, not surprisingly, have focused on "terrorism".

This aspect of the struggle is not altogether a fallacy. After all, many of the opposition's gains in combat have been spearheaded by the likes of Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), both of which are believed to be associated with al-Qaeda.

It is frequently posited that had the West chosen to militarily intervene in Syria at, or soon after, the inception of the revolt, the radical Islamist elements could effectively have been edited out of the picture. That seems to be a spurious line of argument, though, given the consequences of Western intervention in Libya, in a similar context, and even more so in Iraq.

Among the Arab Spring states where there wasn't any intervention, Tunisia has evidently fared best, whereas Egypt has witnessed a restoration of authoritarian rule, with a military-sponsored constitution ostensibly being approved by an unrealistic proportion of voters, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi poised to emerge as a presidential candidate who will, no doubt, be blessed with an official degree of popularity not witnessed since… well, since Hosni Mubarak was last a contender.

The potential outcome does not augur well for Egypt, which has lapsed into a degree of authoritarianism that even Mubarak might have baulked at. Syria, though, is on a different, and even more dangerous, trajectory,

On the eve of Geneva II, a cache of horrific images depicting the victims of torture reinforced long-standing allegations about the methods deployed by the Assad regime in trampling dissent. They were ostensibly obtained from a regime functionary tasked with documenting its excesses.

They were not, however, obtained right before the conference in Switzerland. The Americans, for instance, had been aware of their existence for months. The timing of their release, and the fact that their authentication by seemingly independent experts was sponsored by Qatar, which is effectively a party to the conflict, does raise suspicions. It does not necessarily follow, though, that the evidence can be ignored.

Another remarkable occurrence on the eve of Geneva II was United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's invitation to Iran to participate in the talks. Given that Tehran is viewed as a primary sponsor of the Assad regime that has devoted considerable resources to sustaining him in power, it made perfect sense for the Iranians to be at the table.

However, the Syrian opposition, which had anyhow baulked at the idea of the talks until it was persuaded otherwise by its sponsors, found Iran's participation absolutely unacceptable. And the US reminded Ban that the UN was only ever supposed to be a handmaiden to its imperial designs. So the UN withdrew an invitation that Iran had accepted, thereby insulting the conciliatory Rouhani regime and undermining Geneva II's chances of getting anywhere.

It has lately been suggested that perhaps the best outcome for Syria would be a partition based on ethno-religious grounds. This would not necessarily be a reprehensible result if it could put an end to the mindless slaughter and the suffering of the millions of refugees.

Syria emerged in the aftermath of the so-called Great War nearly a century ago, from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, when the Arab lands were divided essentially between the British and the French empires.

It was only because of French opposition that the Sharif Hussain of Makkah's son Faisal could not endure as the king of Syria and was transplanted to Mesopotamia, aka Iraq.

It could be said that the wheel of fortune has come full circle. It could also be claimed that it has barely shifted in 100 years.

Syria today sits amid the fault lines of the Shia-Sunni divide that splits the Middle East, with the former colonial powers still very much a part of the picture. Chances are the shape of the future will be determined on the ground, rather than in Geneva. It's far from a pleasant picture, though, and many of its particulars provide cause for despair rather than hope.


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