Middle East

How to sweeten the Syrian peace pill

Lunch during a break in the Geneva II peace talks in Montreux on 22 January 2014 Image copyright Reuters

Rule number one - before you announce a date and place for your peace talks, make sure you're not competing for hotel beds with a luxury watchmakers' trade fair.

That's why the big fanfare opening ceremony on Wednesday was not in Geneva but Montreux - sleepy, off-season and music-less, except for a life-size bronze statue of Freddie Mercury on the promenade.

Rule number two - five-star venues please. It's an old diplomatic trick - lull the warring sides with lovely views and luxury; one reason why Switzerland hosts so many of these negotiations.

The two delegations will of course insist on separate hotels to avoid running into each other.

Both sides will take the view that when and if they come face-to-face and interact is a prize to be negotiated, not something to be allowed to happen fortuitously.

Fine wines

But if they're comfortably ensconced in congenial surroundings, maybe they'll start feeling better about each other.

The French are an old hand at this. Go back to the Rambouillet talks before the Kosovo conflict in 1999. The whole idea was to keep the Serb and Kosovan delegations locked up behind chateau walls and ply them with fine French wines and cordon bleu cuisine until they had mellowed enough to offer concessions.

It didn't work, of course. After Rambouillet, they went to war anyway. Plus there is always a danger that negotiating teams will love the five-star treatment so much, they'll deliberately spin out negotiations.

But sweetening tough talks with sugar and sumptuousness is an option.

Rambouillet is also a reminder that rule number three - isolation - no longer works. Enemies used to like to come together on neutral territory, at arms length from global scrutiny. So remote islands were good.

Think Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986, or the US-Soviet talks in Malta in 1989 (though that summit was almost washed out by a Shakespearean tempest which threatened to toss President George H Bush and his seasick officials into the harbour).

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption If you can't keep the media at bay, use it to pile on the pressure for a peace deal

But now the media spotlight comes to find you wherever you are. Delegates constantly tap into their smart phones, tweeting and emailing their thoughts out to the world. Jungles of satellite dishes spring up overnight for round-the-clock journalistic scrutiny.

Which brings us to rule number four: if you, as organiser, can't keep the media at bay, you might as well exploit it.


And this is where last Wednesday's grand opening ceremony in Montreux comes in. Proceedings were broadcasting live on TV across the entire globe all day, as well as to the 40 delegations sitting inside the conference hall.

Why? To convince the two rival Syrian delegations, government and opposition, that these peace talks are being watched closely, including by their own constituencies inside Syria. And that means it is now too late to back out of them - the negotiations have to be taken seriously.

Wednesday's verbal punch-up on camera - that moment when the Syrian foreign minister shouted down the UN secretary general in front of everybody - was an added bonus, at least from the viewpoint of Western nations advising the opposition.

A bit humiliating for Ban Ki-moon, perhaps. But never mind.

For these diplomats it was all helpful theatre to win over nations like India and South Africa who tend to sit on the fence when it comes to choosing between Bashar al-Assad and the opposition.

For these are countries who venerate the United Nations, and view its Security Council as a kind of sacred inner sanctuary. They don't take kindly to those who fail to show due respect for UN institutions - including the secretary general.

So for a Damascus regime already short of real friends around the world, it was not a very clever move to undermine his authority.

Awkward guest

And Ban Ki-moon's unfortunate week brings us to the last rule - better not to invite awkward guests at all, than extend them an offer and then publicly rescind it. I'm talking of course about the flurry of confusion surrounding whether or not to let Iran come.

The fact is Iran is not only an awkward guest, apparently pledging one thing in private that wasn't backed up in public, and an active party to the war whom the opposition find difficult to stomach.

Iran is also surely the most importance piece to slot into the diplomatic jigsaw which seeks to end this conflict. As President Assad's chief funder and military backer, providing money as well as arms and fighters, it has the power to nudge Damascus on to a new track - if it chooses - as no-one else can, even probably Russia.

Without Iran involved, it's hard to see how there can ever be a peace settlement over Syria.