Assessing the Syria Talks in Geneva

After a round of talks between the regime and the opposition, little has been resolved. The Al-Assad regime has no incentive to enter these negotiations with any seriousness; the opposition has no meaningful or effective leverage to convince the key actors to bring significant pressure to bear on the regime.

As the Syrian uprising approaches its fourth year, conflict rages in virtually every one of Syria’s thirteen provinces, wreaking havoc on the country’s society and economy. Fighting has been especially intense in and around major urban centers such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, and in strategic corridors linking Syria’s coastal zone to Lebanon. In recent months, the Bashar Al-Assad regime has retaken ground previously lost to the opposition, with the active support of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet large swathes of Syrian territory remain outside of regime control. Last year, the violence also spilled over all of Syria’s borders, particularly into Iraq and Lebanon, threatening regional stability. The statistics are grim: more than 130,000 killed, over two million refugees, six million internally displaced, and eight million in need of humanitarian relief.

After a round of talks between the regime and the opposition, little has been resolved. The conflict rages on.

For the opposition, few options remain. The United States and the international community have consistently maintained that the Syrian conflict can only be resolved through a politically negotiated transition based on the principles established in the Geneva Framework of July 2012. As such, Washington was adamant that the opposition participate in talks with the regime. But the Syrian regime has little to gain in attending the Geneva conference and legitimizing an opposition; the regime has long refused to sit across from the opposition’s delegation and thereby recognize them. But the regime’s chief sponsor at the talks, Russia, was equally adamant that representatives of Al-Assad attend. In the end both the Syrian regime and the opposition attended the first round of talks and are currently in the second round, which began on February 10.

The regime’s strategy at Geneva thus far has been quite predictable, trying to focus the conference on what it terms “combatting terror” and stabilizing the country. On the opening day of the second round of talks at Geneva, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Moukdad demanded an end to violence, terrorism and foreign intervention as a precondition to any discussions. He reiterated the regime’s earlier efforts at stalling the negotiations while trying to preempt and ultimately circumvent key requirements and pre-determined outcomes of the Geneva II process, including a the formation of a Transitional Governing Body.

The regime still considers it possible to resolve the conflict by force, buoyed by recent military gains, strong support from Russia, Iran and its proxies. The intense barrel bombing campaigns that have preceded both rounds of the Geneva II talks are a clear indication of the regime’s intent to soften up areas it considers strategic priorities, such as Aleppo. It is part of a strategy of pressuring the opposition to accept whatever conditions the regime seeks to impose in return for local ceasefires, aid corridors and some limited prisoner exchanges. Al-Assad’s envoys have avoided the real purpose of the negotiations, which is a Transitional Governing Body. Instead, it has sought local ceasefires, a means by which the regime can regain nominal control of strategic areas. This has proved successful in the Damascus suburbs of Moadamia and Barze. In Barze, there are now even joint checkpoints manned by the regime and local opposition fighters. If the regime can get similar deals in Aleppo and stabilize its situation there, that would be a major success. (The Russians are publicly endorsing this approach.) The regime’s strength contrasts the feeble and less than convincing support that the international community has been willing to offer the opposition.

The Syrian opposition has thus far deftly navigated and countered the regime’s tactics with strategies of its own. They rebuffed the regime’s repeated efforts to divert all discussion to fighting terrorism. The opposition steadfastly focused on the core issues outlined in the Geneva I framework—in particular, the need to create a Transitional Governing Body with full executive powers. Despite their best efforts, the opposition was unsuccessful in achieving progress regarding the fate of Al-Assad or the establishment of such a Transitional Governing Body.

Ultimately the first round of Geneva ended up concentrating on humanitarian issues, such as a temporary ceasefire and the lifting of sieges to allow aid access and the movement of people. But the opposition refused to discuss this in Aleppo, as the regime had initially demanded and tactically brought the besieged parts of the old city of Homs into play instead. For the opposition, insisting on the de-escalation of Homs makes sense: the city had all but militarily fallen to regime forces and therefore the main concessions would ultimately come from the regime. The opposition had everything to gain from such a deal (mainly in alleviating the suffering of the besieged civilian population) and little if anything to lose. Although there was no breakthrough at the first meeting, recent events in the besieged parts of the old city of Homs, which are have led to the evacuation of some six hundred civilians and the entry of aid to the blockaded areas of the city, are the latest fruits of these efforts.

Currently the delegations of both the regime and the opposition are in Geneva for the second round, which is supposed to focus on forming a Transitional Governing Body (TGB). However, the regime delegation is boxed in by its own propaganda, with no authority to negotiate key issues regarding the TGB. Moreover, the Damascus delegation has little room to maneuver beyond the core message of fighting terrorists and the maintaining the Al-Assad presidency.

The opposition remains fragile. More importantly, it has little influence over activists and fighting formations inside Syria. In fact, many of those fighting on the ground are Islamists and highly suspicious of the coalition—and the whole Geneva process. Without the ability to show quick, tangible results—even modest ones—these Islamist rebel forces may quickly turn against the Geneva process and the coalition supposedly representing them there.

On the other side of the table, there is little agreement among the key sponsors of the Geneva II conference: the U.S., Russia and Saudi Arabia. More significantly, Iran, which has been aiding and abetting the Assad regime, is not even present at the conference. The lack of any real discussions or agreement among these key actors is prolonging the deadlock.

Failure is imminent. The Al-Assad regime has no incentive to enter these negotiations with any seriousness; the opposition has no meaningful or effective leverage to convince the key actors to bring significant pressure to bear on the regime or to force its hand by military means. Unless there is a serious shift in the balance of power combined with new creative strategies, there is no hope of any agreement emerging from Geneva.

The major impediment is that the Al-Assad regime continues to seek a military solution to the conflict. It is therefore imperative that the Friends of Syria Core group, led by the U.S., demonstrate to Al-Assad that such an option is not only unacceptable but also a red line, with serious and immediate consequences, including military ones, if crossed. Already there is talk in the U.S. of the need for a new and more assertive Syria policy, following comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry at the Munich Security Conference. In order to end the conflict, Kerry must translate such talk into a new level of U.S. involvement. The U.S. and the opposition must offer creative solutions to issues such as the fate of Al-Assad, the length of the transitional period and the structure and the implementation mechanisms of the transitional government. Otherwise, the Geneva talks are simply a time-wasting exercise.

Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor Middle East History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University. He is a member of the Syrian opposition.