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Low Hopes For Breakthrough At 'Geneva II' On Syria

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad raises a clenched fist at a protest near the hotel where the 'Geneva II' peace talks opened on January 22, in Montreux.
A supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad raises a clenched fist at a protest near the hotel where the 'Geneva II' peace talks opened on January 22, in Montreux.
Tremendous effort has been expended to bring Syria's warring parties to the negotiating table in Switzerland.

But the effort has seen so much discord over who will attend, and what the goal is, that it is highly uncertain whether the summit can reach any kind of peace deal. The proceedings started with a gathering of foreign ministers from many nations in Montreux early on January 22 before moving to direct talks between the warring parties beginning in Geneva on January 24.

The discord is particularly true of the Syrian opposition. In recent months, Syria's rebel groups have grown ever more fractious, with the sectarian-leaning Free Syrian Army and Islamic radicals linked to Al-Qaeda turning their guns on each other for control of areas wrested from the government's control.

The Al-Qaeda-linked groups will not be represented at the talks because they have not been invited by the hosts -- the United Nations, the United States, and Russia. But even the coalition of sectarian and less Islamic radical groups that make up the Syrian National Coalition -- the primary political wing of the opposition -- has grown so divided that only half of it is taking part. That half is made up of more moderate factions that believe it is still possible to negotiate with the Syrian regime, while more hard-line factions boycott the talks in the belief they are useless.

Heiko Wimmin, a Syria expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, says the splits in the opposition mean no one can be sure just how much power its representatives at Geneva II have to implement any peace deal.

"Those people who are going to be part of [the peace conference] process have only very limited control over the militant actors on the ground," Wimmin says. "And if they have any control, they have control over the Free Syrian Army. And all the others may listen or may not listen, so implementing whatever they agree to is going to be indeed very difficult."

Assad's Tactics

Complicating things further, recent months have seen the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad grow more confident he can remain in power without major concessions to the opposition.

When major world powers launched the Syrian peace process in Geneva in mid-2012, the Assad regime was reeling from the rapid spread of the insurgency. As a measure of how much so, the United States and Russia decided in a so-called Geneva I protocol at the time that Assad himself would have to step down as part of any peaceful transition of power, though they disagreed over whether his departure was an immediate aim or long-term goal.

Now, however, the Assad regime appears strengthened by the rebel's divisiveness and its own recent battlefield gains. Ahead of this week's summit, the Syrian government declared it disagreed with "certain elements" of the proposed Geneva II agenda, which was intended to focus precisely on the Geneva I goal of a peaceful transition process. Instead, Damascus has said it intends to use this week's summit to focus on "counterterrorism."

Marwan Kabalan, a Doha-based analyst who was formerly dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, explains Assad's gambit this way.

"The regime believes that it has actually succeeded in changing the whole focus of the international community from democratic transition in the country into fighting terrorism," Kabalan says. "And it feels like it has been successful in portraying the opposition as fanatics, extremists, Salafists, who are difficult to talk to and that the only way to deal with them is to fight them."

Assad's position is strengthened by the refusal of his closest ally, Iran, to accept the goal of his leaving power as a condition for coming to the talks. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a last-minute invitation to Iran on January 20 in the belief Iran had agreed to the proviso. But he had to withdraw the invitation just hours later when Tehran made it clear it had not.

130,000 Dead So Far

All this leaves open the question of how much Geneva II can achieve with a limited representation of Syria's myriad opposition groups and a recalcitrant regime.

Perhaps that is one reason increasing numbers of voices called in the run-up to the summit for broadening the agenda beyond the original goal of achieving a cease-fire and peace deal.

Last week, an editorial in the U.S. daily "The Washington Post" called for the summit to concentrate not only on the "long-shot objective" of a peace deal but also on immediate "palliative measures" to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. It listed a cease-fire in the hard-hit city of Aleppo and the opening of humanitarian corridors as among the most urgent priorities.

PHOTO GALLERY: Syria Accused Of Systematic Torture (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT)

At the same time, a new report by international war crimes prosecutors has focused attention on the regime's widespread use of torture. The evidence includes a huge cache of photographs documenting the torture and killing by Syrian authorities of some 11,000 detainees.

To date, the Syrian conflict has raged almost three years and killed some 130,000 people. During that time, world powers have funneled millions of dollars in aid or arms to the combatants. Western countries such as the United States, Britain, and France, and regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey have supported opposition groups, while Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Hizballah have supported Damascus.

Amid the fighting, world powers have been able to agree on protecting civilians from the use of chemical weapons by beginning to dispose of the regime's stockpiles. But the international community has yet to be able to get sustained humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the crossfire or to stop flagrant human rights abuses.

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