The Geneva II conference on Syria: prospects

A cynic would say this should be my shortest ever blog post: the prospects for success at Geneva II, starting Wednesday 22nd, are virtually zero. It’s only the eternal optimist in me that insists on that sentence including the word “virtually”. Is it really so bad?

In a word…

It would be good to be wrong but yes, it is that bad. If by success you mean bringing the war to an end, the talks will not succeed. But there are possibilities that, though a long way short of peace, are promising.

The parties come reluctantly to Geneva. The talks are to take place on the basis of the Geneva I communique, agreed at the end of a meeting of the UN Action Group on Syria. It said many good things about achieving peace in Syria, insisting that the process must be led by Syrians and be democratic. The key steps in the transition to would be an end to hostilities and the establishment of a transitional government that “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

At present there is no basis to think it’s possible to find that “mutual consent.” There is no clear winner and nor is there a stalemate that hurts each side equally and unbearably. The situation hurts the people of Syria unbearably – well over 100,000 have been killed and 9 million have fled their homes – but the fighters and their leaders including the government have plenty of wherewithal for the continuing fight.

Assad is not about to surrender power; he wasn’t likely to give up a year and a half ago when he appeared to be losing and he’s not going to now when he appears to have a bit more of the upper hand, at least in some parts of the country.

The opposition isn’t about to concede legitimacy to Assad. The Syrian National Coalition voted at the weekend to attend by 58 out of 75. But 44 of its members boycotted the vote so the arithmetic is a lot less convincing than it sounds at first. And those who voted to go did so pragmatically – because that’s what their international backers want them to do.

And the other opposition – Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (sometimes translated as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other al-Qaeda linked groups are not attending and won’t be moved whatever the outcome. For them also, the fight continues.

Looking at where the parties now stand, what they think and the way they are preparing for continuing war, it is hard to believe Geneva II has any prospects for peace-making. It may produce an agreed statement, a formulation, a Geneva II communique on which to base Geneva III. But not peace.

On the other hand

But there are two things that could make the meeting worthwhile. One of them, if it happens, will be trumpeted loud and its meaning will be exaggerated. The other, if it happens, will be kept quiet for a time. That one or both are possible has been confirmed by the invitation from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Iran to participate at Geneva II.

The first is that there could be some level of agreement on humanitarian access. Like the agreement on destroying chemical weapons, this is important, achievable, would reflect well on Assad’s main international backers, Russia and Iran, and won’t end the war. The presence of Iran as well as Russia at the Geneva talks could help pave the way for such an agreement. It will offer crucial aid to many Syrians, but probably not to all, and it won’t in the end solve the huge and awful problems they face.

The second is that there have been some quiet signs in the past few weeks, muttered about by diplomats hoping not to be quoted, that Russia is seeking a way to take its own engagement in Syria into a new phase, working towards a solution that might, for example, ease Bashar al-Assad out of office but leave the regime largely in place. Whether there might be a strong enough constituency for this inside the Syrian regime is not at all clear – not to me, anyway. There is, of course, plenty of precedent for such a development, not least the way a strong enough group in the Egyptian military was ready to turn against Hosni Mubarak, but not go all the way to Tahrir Square.

Again, the presence of Syria’s most important regional backer – Iran – at the Geneva talks gives an opportunity for some quiet, off-the-record, backdoor diplomacy between the US, Russia and Iran. It’s the kind of diplomacy that gets things done, certainly much more effective than megaphone statements about who does and doesn’t have a role in Syria’s future.

If it happens, it won’t produce results quickly. But maybe eventually.

6 thoughts on “The Geneva II conference on Syria: prospects

  1. While sadly agreeing with the overall analysis of the limited prospects for a significant deal emerging from the Geneva conference it might also be worth considering the layers of the different players listed here – ISIS for example, but also Hizbollah and the plethora of other Islamist and secular/nationalist movements -beyond that of the elites in charge.

    MENA scholars have written a lot about that recently, e.g. Asef Bayat talks of a “hidden transcript” which is just as, if not more important in determining what movements do than what their leaders announce. Salwa Ismail would be another who makes a similar case from a more historical/cultural perspective. Main point being there are factors at work at local level that are often missed but frequently critical, in addition to the big power diplomacy that occupies the headlines.

  2. Dan I believe you put it well. As you know I disagreed with a USA led attack on Syria and proposed the removal of chemical weapons, that seems to have worked well up to now but also opened the door to the agreement on Irans nuclear programme. Its important to build upon that. But that requires that the West must bring its Syrian allies into line with the agreement on Syria mentioned in your blog. The real threat to Syria is from the extremist islamic groups, and consequently the others have to find a way to work together and develop the clout to bring order to the country.

    Costas Apostolides, Cyprus

  3. Bad blood, revenge, and suspicion are a few words that can describe obstacles in the path of intricate diplomacy. The stakes are high, guarantees must be respected. Failure is a dismal pit of despair for all involved. I like the idea of anything that can join the sides together in a mutual collaboration against the forces of radical Islam. This outcome could be beneficial for the the Middle East as a whole. Including Israel.
    The financiers of the radicals must be brought to heel.
    I don’t expect much from these talks, but i do hope to see a shimmer of light.
    If those involved are not ready to negotiate a peace settlement they may risk a serious ramp up of foreign hostility.

  4. Good analysis and you are right to be cautiously optimistic (without optimism in humans to find some way out of their problems we might as well just give up). But it is disappointing to see the UN withdraw its invitation to the Iranians. The whole point of peace negotiations – I thought – was to talk to your adversaries, not your friends. It seems as though we are still at ‘conflict resolution 101’ with many players in the international community.

  5. Pingback: Syria: Geneva III, the nettle of negotiation (again), and ISIS (again) | Dan Smith's blog

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