The Geneva II conference on Syria: prospects

A cynic would say this should be my shortest ever blog post: the prospects for success at Geneva II, starting Wednesday 22nd, are virtually zero. It’s only the eternal optimist in me that insists on that sentence including the word “virtually”. Is it really so bad?

In a word…

It would be good to be wrong but yes, it is that bad. If by success you mean bringing the war to an end, the talks will not succeed. But there are possibilities that, though a long way short of peace, are promising.

The parties come reluctantly to Geneva. The talks are to take place on the basis of the Geneva I communique, agreed at the end of a meeting of the UN Action Group on Syria. It said many good things about achieving peace in Syria, insisting that the process must be led by Syrians and be democratic. The key steps in the transition to would be an end to hostilities and the establishment of a transitional government that “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

At present there is no basis to think it’s possible to find that “mutual consent.” There is no clear winner and nor is there a stalemate that hurts each side equally and unbearably. The situation hurts the people of Syria unbearably – well over 100,000 have been killed and 9 million have fled their homes – but the fighters and their leaders including the government have plenty of wherewithal for the continuing fight.

Assad is not about to surrender power; he wasn’t likely to give up a year and a half ago when he appeared to be losing and he’s not going to now when he appears to have a bit more of the upper hand, at least in some parts of the country.

The opposition isn’t about to concede legitimacy to Assad. The Syrian National Coalition voted at the weekend to attend by 58 out of 75. But 44 of its members boycotted the vote so the arithmetic is a lot less convincing than it sounds at first. And those who voted to go did so pragmatically – because that’s what their international backers want them to do.

And the other opposition – Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (sometimes translated as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other al-Qaeda linked groups are not attending and won’t be moved whatever the outcome. For them also, the fight continues.

Looking at where the parties now stand, what they think and the way they are preparing for continuing war, it is hard to believe Geneva II has any prospects for peace-making. It may produce an agreed statement, a formulation, a Geneva II communique on which to base Geneva III. But not peace.

On the other hand

But there are two things that could make the meeting worthwhile. One of them, if it happens, will be trumpeted loud and its meaning will be exaggerated. The other, if it happens, will be kept quiet for a time. That one or both are possible has been confirmed by the invitation from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Iran to participate at Geneva II.

The first is that there could be some level of agreement on humanitarian access. Like the agreement on destroying chemical weapons, this is important, achievable, would reflect well on Assad’s main international backers, Russia and Iran, and won’t end the war. The presence of Iran as well as Russia at the Geneva talks could help pave the way for such an agreement. It will offer crucial aid to many Syrians, but probably not to all, and it won’t in the end solve the huge and awful problems they face.

The second is that there have been some quiet signs in the past few weeks, muttered about by diplomats hoping not to be quoted, that Russia is seeking a way to take its own engagement in Syria into a new phase, working towards a solution that might, for example, ease Bashar al-Assad out of office but leave the regime largely in place. Whether there might be a strong enough constituency for this inside the Syrian regime is not at all clear – not to me, anyway. There is, of course, plenty of precedent for such a development, not least the way a strong enough group in the Egyptian military was ready to turn against Hosni Mubarak, but not go all the way to Tahrir Square.

Again, the presence of Syria’s most important regional backer – Iran - at the Geneva talks gives an opportunity for some quiet, off-the-record, backdoor diplomacy between the US, Russia and Iran. It’s the kind of diplomacy that gets things done, certainly much more effective than megaphone statements about who does and doesn’t have a role in Syria’s future.

If it happens, it won’t produce results quickly. But maybe eventually.