by Charles Naas

At last the Obama Administration has found a reasonable Syria policy. The critics will continue to insist that the US provide arms to the rebels, but it will be difficult to get more traction for this while the initiative with the Russians holds out hopes, although slender, for the beginning of a process that could halt the slaughter of Syrian civilians. The present course of events is untenable and at least the President has been given a little breathing room from the charges that his policy has no substance nor evident purpose. Talk is an advance over conflict.

The conference, when it gets underway, will gather in the long shadow of Versailles at the end of WW l that determined the fate from European and American eyes of the vast Ottoman Empire and its multi-ethnic provinces. It could implicitly be a serious examination of the Sykes-Picot treaty that added to Versailles the division of spoils to the French and British empires.The conference, in other words, could be the opportunity for the inhabitants to redress old errors and egregious mistakes that were imposed upon them. Such daunting challenges will not be resolved at the outset nor easily but addressing them is a step forward.

But, before the opening of the conference is even firmly scheduled, the organizers — presumably the US and Russia — face major political and administrative tasks that could threaten its fate. Points of apparent agreement will, like Sisyphus’ burden, need to go up the hill again and again. Seemingly, little matters such as the size of the table, who sits where, allowed time for each participant’s statements, the right of reply and so on can roil the waters (recall the Paris peace talks on Vietnam).

Happily, there are experts who can deal with purely administration issues but the overt and subliminal political issues that will threaten the course of the labours right from the outset need top-level decisions and flexibility from domestic political forces.

The first issue to be handled is agreement by the US and its co-chair, Russia, on how to coordinate their responsibilities — never an easy task and particularly difficult at a time of renewed tension in the bilateral relationship. For Russia, the confab is a golden opportunity to become once again an important player in the Middle East, to reverse, if it can, its loss of influence with the ending of the Cold War. For the US, there is another chance to “lead from behind”, exhibit its renewed relevance in the affairs of this critical area and avoid the decision whether or not to supply lethal weapons to the rebels.

Beyond agreeing on how to divide their joint responsibilities, the parties must also decide on who will be invited to participate either as a principal or in observer status. There is no satisfactory solution to this conundrum. The battle in the conference room will mirror the deadly one within Syria. The representation from the Syrian rebels is a rats’ nest defying any rational decision. There are at least four or more main fighting groups and probably a dozen or more additional armed elements ranging from al-Qaeda terrorists to every shade of Salafist thought, and regional/ethnic loyalty to a local leader. How many seats must be reserved for this babel? How will participation of these disparate groups be established?

How is Hezbollah, along with Iran and Russia — the main outside supporters of the Assad government — to be handled?

Finally, what nations indisputably must be included as participants in addition to the Syrian Government? As a start, the neighboring states, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan will be on the list and it will likely include the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia could face Russian obstruction to balance our likely efforts to deny Iran a seat at the table.

The US faces an extraordinarily difficult dilemma with respect to Iran. Russia has already announced that it will insist that Iran be seated as a full participant and the Chinese might side with the Russians. Will the US risk the future of the conference to keep Iran excluded or will Congress take action demanding our non-appearance if Iran is invited? It could, of course, be an opportunity to recognize the regional importance of Iran and provide, as with the nuclear talks, a pattern of diplomatic contact.

Within the next two years a similar decision will probably be required, if before our departure, the US takes the initiative to get regional assistance for Afghanistan. James Dobbins, the recently appointed Special Envoy for Afghan-Pakistan matters, has indicated in past statements that he believes Iran must be a part of any multilateral determination on Afghanistan’s future.

In recent years, China has invested in the Middle East and is a major petroleum purchaser, particularly from Iran; its actions at the conference will be of special interest. Other than at the United Nations, this will be an opportunity for the the Chinese to play a special role in this turbulent area, once considered as the prerogative of the US with Russia on the edge striving to push-in and become strategically relevant. China may have its own policy of pivot — to the west.

In the weeks before the calling to order, we can expect each element in this vicious struggle to attempt to improve its military position to speak from a position of greater strength. Syrian government forces will undoubtedly continue recent efforts to create an area of firm control along the Mediterranean coast and show the rebels and the nations supporting them that the government has the necessary wherewithal to back its insistence that Assad and the Alawites will not surrender. The rebels will meanwhile continue to clamor for more arms and make an effort to seize more critical territories.

The negotiators, in sum, have a Herculean task in even launching the talks, but hopes for at least an end to the violence and for an uneasy peace are at stake.

Photo: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe