Inviting people to a party is not always simple. Besides the logistical problem of deciding exactly how many people should be invited and anticipating how many will come, there is the more subtle problem of anticipating who will get along with who. Are these people friends? Does this couple know this couple? Should we try to introduce this unmarried woman to this bachelor? Who should seat next to whom? And the list goes on.
Organizing a diplomatic conference is even more complex. Since the late spring, efforts have been made to organize a conference in Geneva to end the civil war in Syria. After many postponements, Geneva II, as it is called, was finally set on the calendar for January 22. The fact that there were no hotels available in Geneva at that time or that the World Economic Forum was starting on the same date were not taken into consideration. The conference date was January 22 – it will have to start in Montreux because of the hotel problems (Montreux I?) and the Swiss army will be truly extended with security issues in Davos and Montreux at the same time and journalists will be running back and forth. Never mind. The United Nations set the ultimate date. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is the convenor.
Having overcome the problem of the date and all that the above implies, the host has now to decide who to invite. The United Nations News Centre November announcement of the conference states that “”The goal of Geneva II would be to achieve a political solution to the conflict through a comprehensive agreement between the Government and the opposition for the full implementation of the Geneva communiqué, adopted after the first international meeting on the issue on 30 June 2012.” Mr. Ban said: “I expect all partners and parties to demonstrate their support for constructive negotiations.” 26 States, selected by Lakhdar Brahimi, UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, have been invited.
Remembering that the fighting has killed over 100,000 people and driven almost nine million people from their homes since the conflict started in March 2011, it has not been easy to decide who to invite, who are “all partners and parties”. The Syrian Government is obvious. The opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, is extremely divided and for the moment unable to have a consolidated position and delegation. In addition, many countries are either directly or indirectly concerned, some by their humanitarian aid, aid to refugees and monetary donations, while others are “parties” but not necessarily welcomed at the table. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a prime example. It is a staunch defender of the Assad Government in many respects, but will not be easily acceptable to the United States or Saudi Arabia at the table. (Refer back to the dinner party problem of which couples get along.) In this instance, it is difficult to imagine a lasting peace settlement in Syria without Iran’s participation. Diplomacy will have to figure out how to have Iran represented without necessarily having the delegation seated at the main table.
While the questions of the dates and list of invitees may seem trivial in terms of the greater questions of stopping the fighting, humanitarian access, return of the displaced, reconstruction and a peaceful resolution of establishing a representative government, the reality is that the question of invitees especially reflects the complexity of the conflict. What started as a civil war between the Government and dissidents has evolved over time into an international challenge involving many different actors. How to get all those actors together, in the first place, and then to get them to agree will be enormously complicated. Should Assad stay? If not, what kind of transition? Who will be involved in that transition? These are fundamental questions.
But first, it must be decided who comes to the table and the seating arrangements. For some, using the name Geneva and proposing the meeting in Switzerland is already a success.