Middle East

Syria: Can Geneva meeting wield fresh hope for the crisis?

A child at a protest against the Syrian regime in Geneva, Switzerland on 19 May
Image caption The meeting in Geneva will try to come up with a new strategy to end violence in Syria

As the world's great powers gather in Geneva to discuss the conflict in Syria, they are agreed on one thing: the violence must stop.

For 16 months, government troops and opposition forces have been fighting.

Thousands of civilians have died and thousands more have lost their homes in a conflict which has, UN human rights investigators say, been characterised by widespread rights violations such as torture, revenge killings and abduction.

In their latest report, the investigators warn that the conflict has now spread right across the country, and that sectarian violence is becoming more common.

Obviously no-one wants such a situation to continue. The problem is that the big powers do not, yet at any rate, agree on how this conflict can be brought to an end.

Image caption Kofi Annan has outlined a plan for the transition of power in Syria

The aim of the Geneva meeting is to try to get Kofi Annan's six-point plan back on track. In fact the plan has never really been on track. The very first point on Mr Annan's list, a ceasefire, has never been observed.

Now Mr Annan hopes he can get agreement on a peaceful transition of power, something also envisaged in his six-point plan which called for "an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people".

Mr Annan says he is optimistic that the Geneva meeting will come up with a strategy, but just hours before the senior diplomats were due to arrive, the signs were not good.

Remember, this meeting almost did not happen at all because the big powers could not even agree on who should be invited.

Mr Annan, Russia and China had all suggested that Iran, as Syria's neighbour and a regional power, should be at the negotiating table. The United States and Britain said no, accusing Iran of unhelpful meddling in Syria's conflict.

In the end Iran was left off the invitation list, and Russia agreed to come anyway, a compromise many observers viewed as a positive sign.

But now there is another, and even bigger, stumbling block. Kofi Annan has apparently prepared a draft document outlining how a transition of power could happen, with the creation of a unity government followed by multi-party elections.

But who will be included in this unity government?

Russia believes the original "inclusive, Syrian led process" mentioned in the six-point plan means the international community does not have the right to exclude anyone, not even President Bashar al-Assad and his most fervent supporters in the government.

Mr Annan's draft plan, however, reportedly suggests that a new transitional government "could include members of the present government and the opposition, and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".

Both the United States and Britain believe that implies that President Assad would indeed be excluded - a precondition, imposed as it would be by foreign powers, that Russia almost certainly will not accept.

Key questions

Behind Russia's reluctance to abandon President Assad completely lie Moscow's concerns that its considerable financial interests in Syria could, perhaps literally, go up in smoke in a power change that could be chaotic and violent.

And, closer to home, Russia has its own problems in the Caucasus; the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are restive.

Various groups, including some Islamic extremists, are challenging Moscow's power.

Should this tension turn into something more violent, Russia does not want to see a precedent set by the situation in Syria, in which the international community is able to impose a solution which excludes the existing government.

But in demanding that President Assad step down, Britain and the United States must also face questions that so far they cannot answer.

Who will take power in Syria? The opposition is fragmented, and may not have the necessary unity to try to form a government.

How would multi-party elections be organised? Would UN peacekeepers be required? If so, who would supply them? Britain and the United States would be reluctant, given their long commitment to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, events on the ground in Syria seem to be overtaking the diplomacy in Geneva.

The opposition has said it will not participate in any transition which includes the current government, while President Assad has said he will not accept any solution imposed from outside.

And the fighting continues, with heavy shelling reported in the suburbs of Damascus.

"Both sides are still convinced they can win militarily," said one weary diplomat in Geneva.

Until both sides are persuaded otherwise, the people of Syria are unlikely to get any relief.

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