That the international conference on Syria, which will be launched at Montreux, Switzerland, on January 22 and followed two days later by the start of direct talks in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition, will not produce an agreement is a foregone conclusion. Despite being badly bloodied on the battlefield, the Syrian protagonists are still far from ready politically to engage each other in substantive negotiation. But this should not prevent the principal external actors from using the so-called Geneva II discussions as an opportunity to take their own, parallel dialogue in a new direction. For two years they have remained stalled in political maneuvering over preconditions, resulting in diplomatic deadlock with deadly consequences.

The United States and Russia, in particular, have been as coy as their respective Syrian allies about what they are actually willing to settle for concretely in a transitional peace deal in Syria. Yet it is clear that no matter what the specifics, painful—even threatening—compromises are unavoidable if there is to be a political solution. For their part, each of the Syrian protagonists remains unwilling to be first in staking out realistic terms—for reasons tied in part to the frailty of their own internal coalitions. It is therefore high time for their external backers to break the pattern.

To do this, the United States and Russia should present Syrians of all persuasions with a practical template against which to measure both the regime’s and the opposition’s willingness to find a genuine political solution. This requires a new form of behind-the-scenes political engagement involving first these two principal external actors and subsequently the key regional ones. Unless this happens, the killing in Syria will continue for the foreseeable future.

Replicating the Chemical Weapons Deal?

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains fundamentally unwilling to discuss the transfer of any meaningful powers to a transitional government in which genuine opposition forces are represented. Moreover, the regime seeks to sidetrack the peace conference into focusing on the ongoing effort to complete the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and on confronting the threat of al-Qaeda–affiliated jihadists. Indeed, Assad insisted on January 20 that the upcoming peace conference could at best be “supplementary” to a dialogue among Syrians inside Syria and that its primary purpose should therefore be “to combat terrorism in Syria.”

The offer of a prisoner exchange and of a ceasefire in Aleppo relayed by foreign minister Walid Muallem to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on January 17 complements this approach neatly. By seemingly endorsing the international community’s emphasis on the need for confidence-building measures—such as securing local ceasefires and humanitarian access to beleaguered communities in Syria—the regime is trying to portray itself as a responsible and responsive partner. Its ultimate goal in this regard is to turn a potentially uncomfortable discussion in Geneva about transitional power sharing into an opportunity to make political gains.

Although the Syrian opposition swiftly decried the regime’s offer as a hollow gesture, the United States and its partners in the Friends of Syria core group of eleven countries, an alliance of largely Gulf and Western countries, will be pressed to build on the regime’s overture in the hope of generating a positive dynamic. Such confidence-building measures are, after all, what the United States has been working to achieve bilaterally with Russia, even as Russian arms deliveries and technical assistance to the Assad regime have stepped up in recent weeks. Russia can be counted on to promote the regime offer, arguing that Geneva II will fail at the outset if its goals are too ambitious and expectations are set too high.

Russia’s deftness in extracting diplomatic advantage and throwing the regime a lifeline promises to repeat its success in conceiving and brokering the chemical weapons deal in September 2013. The question is whether the United States will again take the escape route offered to it, as it did in September by canceling its planned strike against the regime over its presumed use of chemical weapons and mass killing of civilians in the Damascus area on August 21.

If the United States does allow the primary focus of Geneva II to shift effectively to confidence building, then Russian diplomacy will appear once again as the more creative and constructive. The United States and other Friends of Syria—not to mention the hapless National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the exile opposition body that barely scraped through an internal vote on January 18 confirming its participation in Geneva II—will have to be far more nimble if they are not to be badly wrong-footed. They will need to be much more forthcoming with their strategy for translating talk about transitional power sharing into practice under existing political and battlefield realities.

Turning Opportunity Into Challenge

The biggest challenge right now is that the principal external actors remain critically divided over the main practical contours and sequencing of transitional arrangements for Syria. It is bizarre that the United States and Russia launched a joint diplomatic process last May without already having reached a minimum substantive agreement between them. This agreement is still lacking eight months later. But then this lack of a coordinated approach has been symptomatic of international engagement in the Syrian crisis for the past two years.

Starting with the six-point Annan plan endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on March 16, 2012, and then moving through the Geneva communiqué of June 30 (Geneva I), then the two key missions by Lakhdar Brahimi, who had succeeded Kofi Annan as UN peace envoy in summer 2012, and now Geneva II, there has always been an agreed diplomatic framework. However, it has consistently been more of a shell, in reality waiting to be fleshed out. If Geneva II fails, another collective initiative will no doubt appear soon enough. But for now, the U.S.-Russian framework lends itself naturally to a focus on the more modest goal of confidence building. It is little wonder that the Syrian opposition fears a replica of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”—all process and no peace.

Chances for progress in substantive negotiations are slim and, if anything, receding. The withdrawal of the UN invitation to Iran to participate in Geneva II may yet be overcome if Tehran commits to the Geneva communiqué, but even then there remains a very real problem of timing: what might have worked when the original Geneva communiqué was published eighteen months ago is immeasurably harder now.

At that time, the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups based in Istanbul, had been recognized only three months earlier by the Friends of Syria as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians and the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.” Crucially, the council had far more credibility, at that point, among opposition activists and armed rebels inside Syria than its successor, the National Coalition, has ever had. The Syrian National Council was distinctly unenthusiastic about Geneva I but accepted it grudgingly. Rather than build on this, however, the United States effectively walked away from the communiqué a mere two days after signing it, and the moment was lost.

This is the first piece in a two-part series on the Geneva II Syria peace conference. To read part II, click here.