Kerry to meet opposition head and ‘Friends of Syria’ in London

Move to revive diplomatic option for resolving conflict

In a bid to revive the diplomatic option for resolving the Syrian conflict, US secretary of state John Kerry is to meet European and Arab counterparts and opposition National Coalition head Ahmed Jarba in London today.

The meeting with Jarba and ministers from the "Friends of Syria" group – an alliance of mainly western and Gulf Arab countries who oppose Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – takes place in the wake of the announcement this week by Lakhdar Brahimi that he is stepping down as the the UN envoy for Syria.

An unidentified official said the ministers, who blame Syria’s government for the failure of talks earlier this year, would discuss “how to change the realities on the ground in order to raise the prospects that the regime will participate in meaningful political dialogue.”

Potential successors
Several names have been put forward as potential successors to Mr Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who has played key peacemaking roles over the past 25 years. Among figures mentioned are former Australian premier Kevin Rudd, British peer and UN envoy Michael Williams, former Nato chief Javier Solana, and former Tunisian foreign minister Kamel Morjane.


None is likely to be regarded by the Syrian government as a serious peace-broker. Only Mr Morjane speaks Arabic, essential for mediation.

A diplomatic source close to the failed talks said the effort was doomed from the start because western powers and their Arab Gulf allies have believed the Syrian government could capitulate.

This was not the case in 2012, when the plan for a transitional authority was laid down, and less so in 2014 because government forces have consolidated their control over Syria’s centre and coast, a confident President Bashar al-Assad is standing for a new seven-year term, and the majority of Syrians seek an end to violence that has killed more than 100,000 and ravaged the country.

In recent months, local truces concluded by Damascus with insurgents in strategic locations have replaced talks, the latest being in the Old City of Homs. This led to the withdrawal of 1,200 insurgents from the area and the return of residents. Homs is seen as a model for further local truces followed by reconciliation between Damascus and domestic rebels.

In the north and east, Syrian and foreign jihadi groups have been involved in power struggles that have left at least 2,000 fighters dead, weakening the insurgents. The harsh rule imposed by al-Qaeda-linked groups has turned the people in areas they occupy against them while western powers have come to see that the insurgency is dominated by radical fundamentalists who have absorbed fighters from groups formerly considered to be “moderate.”

The London gathering coincides with the resumption of negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme and Iran's positive response to a Saudi invitation to its foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to pay an official visit to the kingdom.

Iran has supported the Syrian government while Saudi Arabia has funded and armed its insurgents. Riyadh has, however, been alarmed over the return of Saudi jihadis who pose a serious threat to the monarchy. In response, it has banned Saudis from taking part in foreign wars and branded jihadi groups “terrorist organisations.”

Riyadh could also do a deal with Iran over the election of a new president for Lebanon where the term of incumbent Michel Sleiman is coming to an end. As sponsor of the Sunni community, Saudi Arabia has a strong vested interest in calming the situation in volatile Lebanon where Iran's ally, the Shia Hizbullah movement, plays a determining role on the political scene.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times