Although the obstacles are formidable and opinion on its chances of success are is divided, the US, Russia and the UN still seem determined to press ahead with another peace conference on Syria in Geneva. They are correct to do so.
Many people have expressed the view that the conference is futile in light of the continuous delays in holding Geneva II and the intransigence of both sides of the conflict. The political opposition, represented by the Syrian National Coalition, insists that Bashar Al-Assad’s departure from power is the inevitable outcome of the negotiations. The armed opposition groups inside the country are simply not represented at the proposed talks at all. Meanwhile, the Syrian government has refused to negotiate with its armed opponents—whom it brands “terrorists,” as some of them undoubtedly are—and has fired anyone who breaks with the party line. Their conflicting views represent deep-rooted desires: Assad’s absolute determination to hang on to power, and the opposition’s wish to see him gone.
Bearing this in mind, some skeptics ask what the point of trying for a settlement is if there is no settlement to be found. Firstly, there is no reason to take the insistence of the two sides at face value. They both have patrons that they need to placate. In Assad’s case, as John Kerry observed in London recently, Russia has promised to deliver him to Geneva. It is difficult to imagine him refusing to cooperate with the Kremlin, given the lifeline it extended to him over the issue of chemical weapons, possibly even saving his regime from the consequences of its own follyan American military strike.
The same is true of the opposition. In conflicts of this kind, even popular movements which that derive their power from the mass mobilization of a people need external support to some extent, and it is equally difficult to imagine groups like the Syrian National Coalition completely cutting themselves off from the US and the EU in a fit of pique.
Secondly, and most importantly, the conflict in Syria cannot end in any way other way than with a negotiated political settlement. There is no military solution. As things stand, Neither neither side has the capability, as things stand, to win a decisive battlefield victory. Outside powers cannot change this. Assad’s allies lack the means to change the situation on the ground in his favour, and the backers of his opponents—rightly or wrongly—are not going to intervene. This is aside from the fact that the conflict in Syria is a civil war, one driven by internal fractures within Syrian society. A military victory by either side, unaccompanied by a political settlement, will only leave the sources of the conflict unresolved, ready to erupt again somewhere down the line.
Finally, although the Syrian conflict is a civil war, it has also embroiled many regional and international actors as well. The war has become a diplomatic contest between US and Russia, a dispute between the Gulf Arab states and Iran, the theatre of a decisive battle for the ‘axis of resistance,’ and an opportunity for Al-Qaeda and its associated groups. A political agreement which that includes world and regional powers will therefore be a necessary step on the road to a final peace settlement. Even if a conference in Geneva this year only results in a purely international agreement, it will have achieved something worthwhile, and eased the path to a final, definitive accord.
The backers of the Geneva conference are right to try to push the process forward, even if in doing so they are running ahead of events. Even if the summit ends up being a dress rehearsal for a more successful conference in the future, it will be worth it.