Geneva II: Giving war a chance?

Can the Geneva II process end the Syrian impasse?

"A political agreement that initiates some sort of transition process is one of the few ways out of the Syrian impasse," argues Samer Abboud [Reuters]

As the Syrian conflict approaches its third year, there are no signs that the violence and humanitarian catastrophe are abating. In fact, the opposite is true. All indications are that the loss of life and the number of displaced are increasing rapidly.

This is, no doubt, largely attributable to the increase in violence brought about by the proliferation and spread of armed groups, as well as the cumulative socio-economic effects of conflict that are driving families and communities into even further despair. The battlefield dynamics are such that both the regime and rebel forces are becoming more entrenched and committed to military conflict, despite the obvious fact that “victory” by any side, if one can call it that, is unlikely to come about anytime soon. There is very little that anyone can agree on in regards to Syria and the trajectory of the conflict, except, perhaps, that the situation has reached a stalemate.

The dynamics driving this stalemate are complex. The continued fragmentation of the opposition is certainly a contributing factor. To now – or ever for that matter – speak of a Syrian opposition in the singular is not only misguiding, it is simply untrue. The inability of the opposition to affect political change has paralleled the spectacular rise of new groups that are wholly outside of the opposition framework, and who have only contributed to furthering the violence throughout the country.

Complex issues

Today, a substantial portion of that violence is increasingly occurring between rebel groups in what amounts to turf wars. As fragmentation and rebel in-fighting comes to characterise anti-regime forces, the regime itself has shown remarkable strategic adaptability and has benefitted tremendously from the consistent political, military, and economic support of its key allies. But the regime’s resilience and control is illusory and its ability to govern in the political or procedural sense is completely lost. Under such conditions, a political agreement that initiates some sort of transition process is one of the few ways out of the Syrian impasse. It is also, one of the more unlikely possibilities under these conditions.

The failure of the Geneva process is merely creating the conditions for the continuation of the conflict to the detriment of millions of Syrians.

Such a process must also strive to undo the tapestry of violence, social calamity and geographic fragmentation occurring throughout the country. This is no small feat, but it is precisely what is at stake with the negotiations over the Geneva II peace process. To date, the United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has failed in convincing the relevant parties to attend. Complications abound and disagreements over who should attend, what, if any, preconditions parties can bring to the table, and the actual goals of negotiations have stalled movement towards the formalisation of a peace process. However, for the moment, the Geneva process is all the international community has been left with to influence the conflict in Syria.

One area of agreement between parties to the Syrian conflict is that a political solution is preferred over a military one to end the conflict. Most everyone agrees that a political process is needed. But, it is here that the agreements end. Deep divisions that exist around the parameters of negotiations, not to mention the rejection of the Geneva process by groups on the ground, have seemingly torpedoed the process before it even began.  

Overlooked by the focus on resolving these issues are the more pedestrian goals of those committed to the Geneva process to simply get the interested parties to sit together in a room. From this perspective, deciding who gets to negotiate over what is less important then simply getting people across a table from one another. The point is to convince parties to buy into the process, and to do so not only by pledging a commitment, but also by attending the talks.

So far, there has been very little success in doing so, and there is nothing to suggest that this will change in the near future. The main opposition group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), will not attend unless the end goal of the process is a transitional government, and many groups within Syria have altogether rejected the potential of the Geneva process. Meanwhile, regime officials have rejected any pre-conditions for talks. The stalemate continues. It seems that the interested parties are not actually interested in giving peace a chance. Nor are they interested in even getting into a room together.

Giving war a chance

What role, then, does the Geneva process play in the conflict and why is there the appearance of a commitment to a process? A public commitment to a peace process by any of the parties demonstrates a willingness to end the conflict and provides an arena to direct resources and political energy. This is particularly true in the United States where the approach to the Syrian issue has been anaemic at best.

After the satisfactory resolution, from the US perspective, of the chemical weapons issue, Barack Obama’s administration seems even more committed to internationalising the conflict, and to finding a resolution through a multilateral peace process.

The current state of the Geneva process is giving war a chance to solve the conflict.

Much of the same could be said for Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran, who have supported Geneva II while adopting public positions that suggest they simply wish to achieve, through a political process, what the regime was unable to achieve on the battlefield. At this point, agreeing that there should be a process absolves these parties from having to agree on the actual substance of the process. The political back and forths about the specificities of negotiations only provide possibility and hope where there is seemingly little.

The current state of the Geneva process is giving war a chance to solve the conflict. This is not to suggest that war will eventually lead to peace, nor is to suggest, as others have, that this is a desirable evolution of the Syrian crisis. Rather, this is the logical outcome of a process that is failing miserably. There are no visible silver linings in such a scenario and there are no reasons to believe that this will change, as long as the main parties, particularly the regime and its allies, remain entrenched in their various positions towards the negotiations. It is precisely these positions that continue to foreclose the possibility of even kick-starting the Geneva process.

And so it seems that the only hope for the Geneva process, at this point, is to get the main parties into the negotiating room. While this may be the best hope, the repeated failure of Brahimi to do so after so many formal delays is quite revealing of the lack of commitment the parties have to the process and in confronting the more substantive elements of any political negotiations.

In the foreseeable future, the status quo in Syria will remain, despite it showing no signs of moving the conflict towards any political solution. The failure of the Geneva process is merely creating the conditions for the continuation of the conflict to the detriment of millions of Syrians. How any multilateral peace process can take off under the current circumstances is not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that giving war a chance to solve the conflict will not actually do so.

Samer N Abboud is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, Pennsylvania. His current focus is on Syrian capital flight.   

Follow him on Twitter: @samer_abboud