Geneva II: Out of ideas

Hectoring speeches and an acrimonious mood mark opening sessions of Syrian peace talks in Switzerland.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has reiterated that he has no intention of stepping down, his opponents remain bitterly divided [Reuters]

There can be few international summits in history where expectations have been as remarkably low as those for this week’s Syrian peace conference in the Swiss town of Montreux. The purpose of the conference, colloquially known as Geneva II, is to establish a transitional government of opposition and regime figures “by mutual consent”.

No one thinks that such an outcome is plausible: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reiterated that he has no intention of stepping down, his opponents remain bitterly divided, and each side’s foreign sponsors are pushing for an absolute military victory rather than a political settlement. Yesterday, hectoring speeches and an acrimonious mood marked the conference’s opening sessions. So why is everyone there in the first place?

One answer is that the international community is out of ideas. Last year, the US abandoned its plans for missile strikes and decided that it would only give a negligible, token number of arms to rebels. US President Barack Obama clearly explained his thinking in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick this month:

“Very early in this process, I actually asked the CIA to analyse examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much… our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work with the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power – mainly the Iranians and the Russians – as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”

Put simply, the US wants to end the war and contain extremism, but is unwilling to tip the balance in the moderate rebels’ favour or support an Assad victory. Geneva II is one way to explore a compromise solution that would preserve parts of the Syrian state, satisfy Moscow, while allowing the opposition a share of power and taking the sting out of the rebellion.

Geneva II is one way to explore a compromise solution that would preserve parts of the Syrian state, satisfy Moscow, while allowing the opposition a share of power and taking the sting out of the rebellion.

And even if Assad does not step down in the short-term, the US hopes that initiating a dialogue now will make it easier to form a transitional government if he does so in the future. As US Secretary of State John Kerry put it, the conference “is not the end but rather the beginning, the launch of a process”. It will be considered a success in Washington even if its only outcome is the promise of further meetings.

Undesirable compromises

For the warring parties themselves – the Syrian regime, the opposition umbrella group known as the Syrian National Coalition, and the plethora of armed rebel groups on the ground – the calculation is rather different. They believe that such compromises are undesirable and unnecessary, and the very idea of a transitional government is fantasy. They are attending Geneva II, firstly, because the US and Russia have pressured them to do so.

For the opposition, the dilemma was that attending Geneva II might make them a greater target of harder-line rebels back in Syria, who reject any dialogue with Assad, and that the conference would legitimate the regime rather than hasten its end. At the same time, they worried that if they refused to go then the US might cut what limited aid it was giving them. Additionally, had either side boycotted the talks only to have their opponents show up, they risked looking like the unreasonable party.  

There were also advantages to attending. Each side is eager to set the agenda on their own terms, very different from those of John Kerry or UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The regime is confident from the past year’s military successes, the infighting in the opposition ranks, and its external support from Russia and Iran. Its aim is to shift the narrative away from a transition, and towards the fight against terrorism.

With 1,200 European Muslims having fought in Syria since the conflict began – the largest such flow in history – and European intelligence agencies sending representatives to Damascus, Assad hopes to use Geneva II as a platform to reinforce his longstanding point that he stands at the front-line of a common struggle against terrorism. This narrative was complicated over the past week, after evidence emerged that the Syrian regime had itself been funding jihadist groups and releasing extremists from prison. But that did not deter Syria’s foreign minister from focusing his opening remarks on this issue.

The opposition, in turn, took the opportunity to underscore the scale of Assad’s torture, extrajudicial killing, and indiscriminate use of force. They were bolstered in this effort by news of a huge trove of photographs documenting regime victims, whose date of leaking was surely calibrated to influence the talks. All this is why, at yesterday’s opening day of the conference, neither side heeded Ban Ki-moon’s pleas that they avoid accusations. Instead, the conference was treated as yet another platform for propaganda.

Irrelevant political counterparts

In addition to these factors, it should also be remembered that each side’s delegation represents only a narrow slice of their respective sides. The Syrian regime’s security apparatus is not attending, and nor are the key rebel commanders who operate relatively independently of what they would see as out-of-touch and irrelevant political counterparts. Many of these commanders have denounced the very idea of talks, and most do not see any need for concessions. In part, this is because their sources of support have not dried up.

Over the past weeks, Russia has accelerated its military supplies to Damascus and the US and the Gulf states have jointly backed a coalition fighting Al Qaida. Iran is also absent from Montreux, because, unlike other participants, it refused to endorse the basic agenda of the conference. So if an unlikely ceasefire were agreed, enforcing this would be a different matter. Even when such tactical breakthroughs seem beyond reach. The Syrian government has reportedly suggested ceasefires in recent weeks, but these have been conditional on rebel withdrawals.

At successful peace conferences of the past, such as the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War, all sides were utterly exhausted by war, and driven by that exhaustion to seek compromises. In Syria, such conditions do not prevail. There is no plausible transitional government that is acceptable to each side, and this week’s discussions will surely lead nowhere. The larger question is whether the process now set in motion will prove useful, should exhaustion set in, months or even years down the road. 

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard Universities. He specialises in the international politics of South Asia and the Middle East.

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