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Will talks yield any progress for ending the Syrian war?

January 22, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill from Switzerland to further discuss the positions held by the opposing sides. Then Gwen Ifill gets reaction from Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute about whether anything positive can come of the talks.
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GWEN IFILL: Margaret is in Montreux covering the talks. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Margaret, welcome.

We saw that today was a pretty rocky first day. What were the atmospherics behind all of that?

MARGARET WARNER: Definitely, Gwen.

The hope had been that you have got these two parties face-to-face for the very first time, and that would begin a dialogue. What you saw, what we saw and heard was a lot of anger, bitterness, confrontation, and vitriol directed at one another, and that the government and the opposition, as you could see, laid out their maximalist positions, with the government saying this is all about terrorism, and the opposition saying it’s all about changing the government, and that can’t include Assad.

Now, afterwards, Secretary Kerry said he wasn’t surprised. And he said, after all, opening positions are opening positions. But my favorite comment came from the French foreign minister when one reporter said, well, was this a conversation between the deaf? And he said, only one side was deaf.

GWEN IFILL: And I imagine he thought the one side was the Syrian foreign minister. Did he end up hijacking the conference that was supposed to be a nice, genteel diplomatic exchange?

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Well, he certainly set the agenda.

What was interesting about Moallem was, it wasn’t so much the accusations he made, but that he really attacked almost every party in the room. So he called the opposition words like that they were cannibals butchering human hearts. He said that the Gulf states were promoting this medieval brand of what Wahabism and exporting their only national product, which was terrorism.

He called all the Western powers colonial powers who a hundred years ago carved up Syria. So, in that sense, he forced other speakers to respond, certainly on the terrorism charge, that the real problem was terrorism. And also the State Department was sending out e-mail refutations of what Moallem had to say, saying this kind of aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric won’t solve the problems, going on about the problems on the ground, that the horrific conditions can only be changed by a change in the two sides there.

So, in that sense, I would say he did set the agenda to some degree.

GWEN IFILL: So what was the goal of Syria at this meeting in sending him to do these things? Was it just to say, we’re not going anywhere?

MARGARET WARNER: That is really the puzzling question, Gwen.

Now, I have spoken — one great thing about these conferences is you actually get to speak to people, all the parties. And so the Syrian delegation, which happened to be staying in our hotel — we have had a chance to talk to some of them — they say and some observers from Damascus say that the Syrians really thought that this terrorism, this specter of terrorism among the jihadi fighters has finally brought the world together because they are so worried it is going to move on to Europe or the U.S., and, therefore, that they really have expectations that the world will start to put pressure on Turkey and Jordan not to let these terrorists through their borders, on the Gulf states not to send money and weapons.

Maybe, cynics say, that Assad is just trying to buy more time, time for his forces to try to take back more territory from the rebels and most of all let the rebels continue fighting amongst themselves. So it’s really — I would say it is a very hard question to answer.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and, meanwhile, John Kerry said today that, you know, basically, we just have to deal with reality. And you wonder, what is his idea? What does he mean when he says reality?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the context of that comment, which he made a couple of different times, was that the reality is under this Geneva I communique, which was 18 months ago and the Security Council signed off on it, it says that this new transition government must be done by mutual consent.

And so, as Kerry said in that speech, that means no one can form a government if the other side objects. And he says, so that means, of course, Bashar Assad will not get the consent of the Syrian people, whom he has brutalized, he said, for three years. So that is the context. And it is sort of a message to the entire world, but particularly to the Syrian government, that you better have a plan B.  

GWEN IFILL: So, after a day like today, does the U.S. or the U.N., do they think that Syria may have been emboldened in this process, rather than weakened?

MARGARET WARNER: I don’t know about today, Gwen.

There is no doubt in the administration’s mind that Assad is in a considerably stronger position than just last July, I think it was, when Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov really said, well, let’s set a date for this conference. And so they know he is in a stronger position.

He also gave an interview to Agence France-Presse a couple of days ago where he talked about running for reelection, that the idea of taking in some exiled member of the opposition into government, power-sharing was a — quote — “good joke.” So he didn’t sound like a man who thinks his back is against the wall.

But it was interesting that Moallem, who was so inflammatory this morning, when he made comments later in the day, had really softened his tone, and his own U.N. ambassador said at a briefing for reporters afterwards, well, they were going to go to Geneva now for the real face-to-face talks.

So, you know, there’s speculations that the Russians were leaning on them. But I think there is a lot of backstory to this very public conference that we still have yet to learn.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be waiting to hear it all from you, Margaret Warner, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, in Montreux, Switzerland, tonight. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So, given the lack of progress in Switzerland so far, can anything positive come out of these talks? If not, what other path exists to end a war that has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people?

I’m joined by Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute.

Andrew Tabler, you heard Margaret talk about the anger, the bitterness and the vitriol. What do you think Assad wants out of this?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: It’s very clear. He wants to frame the war in Syria, the uprising in Syria, as a war against terrorism and one that, as Margaret said, the rest of the world can bandwagon behind him.

But, actually, what President Assad wants to do is, he wants to force a solution in Syria. He doesn’t want this kind of negotiated solution, as we have seen here in Montreux. He wants to instead peg his holding onto power to his upcoming presidential reelection for a third seven-year term as president. And he talked about that in a recent interview leading up to today’s talks in Montreux, which were — which actually were the precursor to Moallem’s comments today.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Joshua Landis? What is Assad up to here?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think Assad, you know, the Americans want him to step aside. The Syrian opposition want him to step aside.

He’s quite strong on the ground. He’s got a powerful military with an air force and tanks and artillery. The opposition cannot respond to that. They have taken a bunch — the north of the country and the east. Assad and for the last two years has been sitting in the south and the west. The country has been divided.

Now, you know, the United States said that he had to step aside two years ago, Obama did. And John Kerry said he was going to make him change his calculation. But it’s not clear how he is going to change his calculation. And if the United States is not willing to send F-16s to Damascus, he isn’t going to change his calculation.

So he is standing firm and he’s going to wait to negotiate over a cease-fire, which would mean partitioning Syria in some way, at least temporarily, and having perhaps the rebels hold the north and he would hold the south.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Andrew Tabler about that.

The U.S. says they would like for him to step aside. They say it every chance they get. The U.N. says the same thing. That is what this basic fight was about in Montreux. What do they have in mind to make that happen?

ANDREW TABLER: They have in mind the Geneva communique, which was the basis of the negotiations today.

And the reason why there should be this political transition, this process, is because they don’t believe that President Assad can sit atop that regime, which is, indeed, strong in the west and the south, and then reunite the different parts of the country.

So, if Assad is able to go on with a forced solution, I think the chances of putting the pieces of Syria back together as one country are very slim. If there is a negotiated process here, where members of the current government, as the Geneva communique says, and members of the opposition come together as part of this transition governing body going forward, then there is a chance in the end without Assad that you could put it all back together.

But, again, this is the beginning of a process and one that is going to be very long.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua Landis, can that happen without Iran at the table?

JOSHUA LANDIS: No, it can’t. And even with Iran, it’s unlikely to happen.

Assad runs the Syrian regime. Anybody who stands up and says you should really step aside ends up dead or in prison. And that is what has happened for 40 years. And why people expect to today that his generals will stand up and ask him to leave is beyond me. He’s not going to do it. He’s fought. He’s killed many people in order not to do it.

And unless somebody is willing to force him to do it, which they haven’t so far, he’s not going to. And what we have seen is two years of stalemate. And how that balance of power is going to change is beyond — is a mystery to everybody today.

Now, the opposition has asked that he go. And Kerry has taken their side in order to get them to Geneva, but he has not told the world how he’s going to make that happen. Until he does, there’s no reason to believe it will.

GWEN IFILL: That’s a question. Can he force a cease-fire, John Kerry, or anybody on that side to help the opposition?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, and it’s a good question.

Until now, cease-fires and provision of humanitarian aid by the regime has meant, well, if the rebels evacuate rebel-controlled areas, if armed rebels evacuate those areas, then the regime will come in and then distribute aid, right?

Well, what they are pushing for now is the unconditional delivery of that aid, some limited cease-fires to help that, and also an exchange of prisoners. And we will have to wait to see how these discussions come out on the other end of the lake in Geneva or Friday between the Syrian parties.

GWEN IFILL: You think those things are actually still on the table?

ANDREW TABLER: I think that they are on the table.

Now, I don’t know — it is important to note that the — while the comments at the conference started out quite acrimonious, at the end of it, the Syrian contingent was much more easy-going. Walid Moallem, Bouthaina Shaaban, all the — President Assad’s men and women, they all were more conciliatory. I think that they realized that they were losing the public relations battle probably because of Walid Moallem’s sort of remarks in exchange with Ban Ki-Moon early in the conference.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Joshua Landis that question.

Did you see it that way, that, in the end, that the Syrian government was tempering their remarks more than they had at the beginning of the day?

JOSHUA LANDIS: You know, I don’t know what their strategy is.

Clearly, they have come out shooting and very dismissive. They are trading to state that they are there, that they are not going away. And now they’re going to get down to see what sort of business can be done. This was — first day was a scene-opener. And both sides came out with their maximum demands.

The opposition said he has to go and the regime has to go. And he said, we’re not going and they’re terrorists. So now we will have to see, you know, what can be provided. And there’s going to be inducements, perhaps, from both Russia and the United States to both sides to see if they can move closer to some kind of cease-fire, which would allow refugees to stop pouring out of Syria, and perhaps the process of rebuilding to eventually move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we talked about the cease-fire, Andrew Tabler. What other kind of inducements are there for the opposition — to help the opposition, if that is what the U.S. or the U.N. want to do?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, it’s a really good question. What can the United States do?

The opposition that’s at the table in Geneva is not tremendously representative of the armed groups on the ground. But delivering humanitarian aid to different areas, Syrians are in desperate need of that throughout the country. So, a — some sort of agreement for the delivery of humanitarian aid without — you know, without evacuating areas, unconditionally, on both the — conditioning the rebels and the regime to both allow that would be a victory.

I think that, by achieving that, that would then strengthen the rebels’ hands and the opposition’s hands within the country. But, beyond that, it’s going to be just the beginning of a very long process.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both briefly, are you optimistic, Joshua Landis, or pessimistic about these talks?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, today, I am pessimistic.

This is a scene-setter here. Both sides still believe that they can win this battle. They’re beginning to doubt it, I think, because it’s been — you know, it’s been years. And there — a third of the country has been displaced. So there is real pressure to come to some kind of agreement.

But none of them — they’re still feeling around to see whether their backers, whether Saudi Arabia, whether Iran are able to make a deal. And that will be — ultimately, I think, Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come to some agreement on how they can agree on Syria before the forces on the ground will really begin to talk about cease-fire.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler, are you optimistic, pessimistic?

(CROSSTALK)

ANDREW TABLER: No, I’m also optimistic.

Yes, I think talks between the different regional parties are very important, right? They are the ones who are involved in supporting the different — the different factions. But the one interesting thing is, I think, today, the hard line of the Syrian regime and backed up by the Iranians, I think, was rebuffed. And I think, at the table, it started something.

Now, whether it leads to something in the concrete is really too hard to tell at the moment.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute and Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma, thank you both so much.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.

JOSHUA LANDIS: A pleasure.