Syria: How Opposition Won PR Battle at Geneva II

PHOTO: Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and senior Assad advisor Bouthaina Shaaban

One of the key dimensions of the 10-day Geneva II conference on Syria was the propaganda contest between the Assad and opposition delegations.

Indeed, with the failure of the conference to achieve any significant political advance, the primary accomplishment of the meeting may be the outcome of that contest.

If so, the opposition has won a notable victory.

Anne Barnard’s report from Geneva for The New York Times, published on Wednesday, reinforces our conclusion:

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The Syrian government officials were expected to present themselves as the grown-ups at the peace conference here, representatives of a capable, sovereign government facing opponents they call political amateurs at best, and at worst, terrorist rabble.

But that was not how it went.

The Syrian officials took offense easily. They berated fellow Syrians, foreign reporters and the head of the United Nations. They sent mixed messages, alternately ranting and cajoling. They ignored the meeting agenda, and even the time limits for speeches, by some accounts embarrassing their Russian allies. It was the kind of performance that diplomats had come to expect from the fractious exiles in the Syrian opposition.

Instead, it was the opposition’s coalition that came across as relatively cool and professional, remaining calm and cordial even when provoked by the other side.

It was a turnabout that has the exile opposition coalition and its Western backers declaring an early, if modest, victory on the global stage, even as government delegates contend that their defiance was deliberate, a successful counterstrike at a “campaign of lies” against Syria and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

Exile leaders believe they gained a measure of much-needed credibility at home and abroad, as they stuck to core messages: pushing for “genuine” democracy and pluralism, as stipulated in the meeting protocols, denouncing terrorism and holding the government accountable for repression.

“We surprised ourselves,” Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American consultant to the coalition, said Tuesday.

The coalition now hopes to capitalize on what it reads as signs of displeasure with the government from its strongest backer, Russia, as the coalition president flies to Moscow next week with pledges of continued friendship in a post-Assad Syria.

Numerous Western diplomats and opposition delegates said that during the opening speeches last week in Montreux, Switzerland, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, sat with a pained expression and even tapped his watch as Syria’s foreign minister spoke and sparred with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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