This is the second piece in a two-part series on the Geneva II Syria peace conference. To read part I, click here.
Despite the rhetoric about its determination to see meaningful transition in Syria, the U.S. administration has no clearer idea now of how to bring this about than it did in mid-2012. Nor has it any greater willingness to undertake the level of material commitment and direct action needed to ensure change actually happens. There is no prospect that other Western members of the Friends of Syria core group, an alliance of largely Gulf and Western countries that convenes on Syria outside of the UN Security Council, will exert themselves more either, or that their regional partners—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—will go beyond their current policies of providing opposition rebels with arms and funds.
The fact that Western and Arab governments promised a mere $2.4 billion in new humanitarian assistance for Syria on January 15 in response to the UN appeal for $6.5 billion for 2014 illustrates the level of commitment. This poor showing at the Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference in Kuwait follows the pattern established in 2013, when only 70 percent of the $1.5 billion pledged was disbursed.
WHISTLING IN THE WIND
If the United States and other Friends of Syria allow the focus on confidence-building measures to become the default setting of diplomacy on Syria, then the eventual outcome of the so-called Geneva II process, a U.S.- and Russian-backed peace conference slated to begin on January 22, will be dictated wholly by developments on the ground. Here, the regime still has an advantage that is made greater not by its own strengths or the dependability of its external allies but by the deepening decrepitude of the main exile opposition body, the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, and by widening rifts within the armed rebellion. The regime will be left to gradually whittle away at the opposition’s social base as it compels exhausted populations in besieged communities to submit to its terms for allowing local truces and food supply.
The vista for Geneva II is not open-ended. The regime is battered but likely to continually improve its position between now and June 2014, when its chemical weapons capability should be completely dismantled. Should the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany eventually reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, it might be easier to secure agreement between the United States, Russia, and Iran on Syria. But in the interim, and possibly even after, Iran and Saudi Arabia may step up their rivalry elsewhere in the region, further destabilizing Iraq, Lebanon, and of course Syria.
Much hinges right now on how the Friends of Syria approach Russia and Iran. Neither country necessarily prefers an outcome that leaves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in office or embodies a complete and unambiguous regime victory. Both more likely want, even need, change in Syria, albeit highly controlled. Russia is clearly already using its influence to persuade the Assad regime to engage with the Geneva II framework, and Moscow will probably do the same to ensure Iran’s eventual explicit commitment to the Geneva communiqué of 2012, a document signed by several international powers during an earlier meeting to find a peaceful solution in Syria. Iran’s refusal to commit to the communiqué caused the UN to withdraw Tehran’s invitation to participate in Geneva II. But Iran has never actually questioned the validity or legitimacy of the Geneva II process, and its participation would represent at least an implicit recognition that an eventual political solution will lead to a different Syria.
This still falls short of what the Friends of Syria core group, let alone most wings of the Syrian opposition, will accept. But so far its counterparts can claim to be acting within the framework set out by the Friends of Syria in London on October 22, which called for substantive, face-to-face negotiations on the basis of the Geneva communiqué and a range of confidence-building measures that have mostly been on the table since the March 2012 Annan Plan, a six-point peace plan for Syria launched by then UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.
The key difference, obviously, lies in the role of Assad. The alacrity with which Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accepted Russian advice to make a strong public relations gesture with the offer of a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire in Aleppo may reveal Assad’s anxiety about the Russian commitment to his remaining in power. With Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reflecting a new desire to reduce regional tensions and openness to the Geneva II process during his recent visits to Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Baghdad, and Moscow, Assad must also contend with the possibility that the Iranian position will shift sufficiently to place his personal future in doubt.
But this still lies some time away. For now, the Friends of Syria display neither the means nor the resolve to impose terms. When UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated on January 19 that “any mutually agreed settlement means that Assad can play no role in Syria's future,” he overlooked the obvious retort that mutuality also assumes Assad’s consent, which the Syrian president remains far from being forced to give.
Reversing the tables is possible only with serious Russian and Iranian buy-in. In order to secure this commitment, the Friends of Syria will have to rethink their approach to opposition representation at the negotiations and, more importantly, to how a transitional process in Syria will unfold in practice. Russia and Iran seek to preserve much of the regime and its key constituencies and envisage substantially different interim and final political outcomes. However, the Friends of Syria will have to engage with this in order to have any hope of securing Assad’s eventual departure in return. Until then, their stated commitment to the contrary is, tragically, mere whistling in the wind.
TURNING CHALLENGE BACK INTO OPPORTUNITY
The Syrian conflict has entered a delicate phase. Should Geneva II fail to kick-start serious negotiation, at least between the principal external actors, this may leave Syria even worse off than before because it will take a lot longer to rebuild diplomatic momentum or credibility. The facts being created on the ground in the meantime lead in the opposite direction.
But in engaging with the Geneva II framework and pressing the Assad regime to make a show of proposing potentially significant confidence-building measures, Russia and Iran signal commitment to a diplomatic process that must, sooner or later, lead to political change in Syria. It may be too much to demand that the Syrian opposition grasp this slimmest of hopes, but the Friends of Syria have an obligation to try unless they are going to be considerably more forceful in imposing a different course of action.
This means moving from declared positions, and possibly also from formal venues, into more free-ranging and frank discussion of how to structure and sequence Syrian transition. U.S. and Russian officials working on Syria talk almost daily but as yet have nothing of substance to share with their allies and associates upon which to start building consensus positions. A wider Track II process involving other principal external actors who stand on both sides of the Syrian divide could help depart from starting positions, enabling the diplomatic deadlock to be broken and presenting a genuine opportunity for peace to the Syrian people.
The opportunities and challenges are currently finely balanced, but this will not remain the case forever. If the moment is not seized by mid-2014, then it seems inevitable that Syria will move even further away from peaceful, let alone democratic, transition.