Geneva II: Great expectations?

First peace initiatives rarely produce agreements to end conflict and Syria is not likely to be an exception.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem leads his delegation at the opening of the Geneva II peace conference [Reuters]
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem leads his delegation at the opening of the Geneva II peace conference [Reuters]

Diplomacy is a cumulative process. Geneva II begins where Geneva I left off. At Geneva I, held on June 20, 2012, the action group for Syria, which included Russia and the United States, agreed on the principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led transition. According to the group communique, the first key step in the transition involved the establishment of “a transitional governing body” with full executive powers, formed on the basis of “mutual consent” involving “members of the present government and the opposition”.  

The objective of Geneva II is to launch the negotiation process between the Syrian regime and the opposition delegations focusing on the mechanisms for implementing the Geneva I objectives. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem can say all he wants about the regime and President Bashar al-Assad being red lines. As a seasoned diplomat, he knows that the mere fact of his presence at negotiations organised according to the Geneva I political framework means that the train for the Assad family’s exit has left the station. To the chagrin and misfortune of millions of Syrians, this train might take months, if not years, to reach its destination.

This is not unique to the Syrian conflict. The experiences with civil wars in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Lebanon in the 1980s demonstrate that the first peace initiative rarely, if ever, succeeds at producing an agreement to end the conflict.

The experiences with civil wars in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Lebanon in the 1980s demonstrate that the first peace initiative rarely, if ever, succeeds at producing an agreement to end the conflict.

Years of talking and fighting preceded the Taef accords in Lebanon. Four failed peace initiatives preceded the Dayton accords in Bosnia. The same pattern of a lengthy process of talking while fighting will likely repeat itself in Syria.

At Geneva II, the international community is laying to rest the idea of a final solution in Syria that can be reached through a unilateral military victory. Political negotiations are the only game in town. Three years into the conflict, the regime patrons and the opposition military backers acknowledge that money, weapons and fighters are means to prevent their ally’s military defeat though they will be unable to secure its decisive victory over its opponents.

Even the most ardent Syrian regime patrons are now admitting that the status quo ante can no longer be restored in Syria. Going forward, the most likely scenario is a war of attrition that is interspersed with political negotiations. The pace and tempo of the civil war will likely increase in between negotiation sessions, as each side seeks to achieve military gains for the purpose of leveraging them for a better outcome at the negotiation table.

Building on their collaboration in getting the Syrian regime to dismantle its chemical weapons’ arsenal, followed by their success in convening  the Geneva II  conference, Russia and the US now co-own the Syrian conflict. The chemical weapons agreement and Geneva II are partly the result of increased diplomatic traffic between Moscow and Washington. This budding working relationship will be severely tested.

It is much easier to pressure the Syrian regime to send a delegation to Montreux than to convince it that it is time to give up power. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that to date, there remains a wide gap between the Russian and US perspectives on the form of the desired end-state in Syria. While they share the same interest of maintaining Syrian state institutions, the Russian leadership remains highly skeptical of whether a divided Syrian opposition provides a credible alternative to the Assad regime. In his remarks at Geneva II, the Russian foreign minister’s emphasis on a secular regime in Syria highlights Russia’s fear of an Islamist coalition ruling the country post-Assad. 

As we look at the lessons learned from past models of international mediation and what they tell us about the elements of success for a mediation of the Syrian conflict, we should focus on two such models: The Dayton accords which in the 1990s brought an end to the civil war in Bosnia and created the architecture for a post-war federal state; and the Bonn 2001 Conference in which the international community enabled an interim government to come to power in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Geneva II is unlikely to become the Syrian war’s Dayton moment unless one key condition is met: Divisions in the Syrian opposition are mitigated. The Syrian opposition delegation to Geneva II is far from being inclusive, lacks serious grassroots support in the country, and does not control the opposition fighters on the ground.

Competing agendas

The competing agendas of their regional backers is partly to blame for the divisions inside the Syrian opposition. To date, regional countries are more interested in pursuing competing agendas in Syria by throwing their influence and support behind different armed groups than by working together to help forge a credible and united Syrian opposition. These intra-regional divisions are usually best addressed in a Middle East-based mediation mechanism. However, since the demise of the Egyptian-backed Quartet, there is no such regional mechanism. Egypt is unlikely to revive the old quartet given its fractious relationship with Turkey. UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is best positioned to fill that void by devoting a good part of his mediation efforts to promoting better coordination between these regional players.

In Bonn, American and Iranian diplomats worked together to ensure a political settlement in Afghanistan. This was preceded by a modest and quiet US-Iranian rapprochement. We might be facing a similar opportunity in Syria. Whether such collaboration will materialise or not, will depend on two factors: Progress in negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 on the nuclear file; and the decision by Iranian leaders, in particular Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to play a conciliatory regional policy in Syria and Lebanon.

So far, Iran’s objective in Syria has been to prevent the Syrian regime’s military defeat. Thanks to Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters, this objective has been accomplished. Iranian officials claim that they have played a role in persuading Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal and to attend Geneva II. Disinviting Iran from Geneva II was a bad move that will complicate conflict resolution efforts in Syria. Without Iran, there will be no peace in Syria. It is not clear yet what conditions and what incentives must be in place for the Iranian regime to abandon the Assad ship. 

Randa Slim is an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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