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Diplomacy is a cumulative process. Geneva II begins where Geneva I left off. At Geneva I, held on June 20, 2012, the action group for Syria, which included Russia and the United States, agreed on the principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led transition. According to the group communiqué, the first key step in the transition involves the establishment of a “transitional governing body” with full executive powers that is formed on the basis of “mutual consent” involving “members of the present government and the opposition.”
The objective of Geneva II is to launch the negotiation process between the Syrian regime and the opposition delegations, focusing on the mechanisms for implementing the Geneva I objectives. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem can say all he wants about the preservation of the regime and Assad being red lines. As a seasoned diplomat, he knows that the mere fact of his presence at a negotiation table that is organized according to the Geneva I political framework means that the train for the Assad family’s exit has left the station. To the chagrin and misfortune of millions of Syrians, this train might take months, if not years, to reach its destination—but that it will.
This is not unique to the Syrian conflict. The experiences with civil wars in Lebanon in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s demonstrate that the first peace initiative rarely, if ever, succeeds at producing an agreement to end the conflict. Years of talking and fighting preceded the Taif accord in Lebanon. Four failed peace initiatives preceded the Dayton agreement in Bosnia. The same pattern of a lengthy process of talking while fighting will likely repeat itself in Syria.
At Geneva II, the international community is laying to rest the idea of a final solution in Syria that can be reached through a unilateral military victory. Political negotiations are the only game in town. Three years into the conflict, regime patrons and opposition military backers are acknowledging that while money, weapons, and fighters may prevent their ally’s military defeat, they will be unable to secure its decisive victory. Even the most ardent Syrian regime patrons are now admitting that the status quo ante can no longer be restored in Syria. Going forward, the most likely scenario will be a war of attrition that is interspersed with political negotiations. The pace and tempo of the civil war will likely increase in between negotiation sessions as each side seeks to achieve military gains for the purpose of leveraging them for a better outcome at the negotiation table.
Building on their collaboration in getting the Syrian regime to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal, followed by their success in convening the Geneva II conference, Russia and the United States now co-own the Syrian conflict. The chemical weapons agreement and Geneva II are partly the result of increased diplomatic traffic between Moscow and Washington. Going forward, this budding working relationship will be tested. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that to date, a wide gap remains between the Russian and U.S. perspectives on the form of the desired end state in Syria. While they share the same interest in maintaining Syrian state institutions, the Russian leadership remains highly skeptical of whether a divided Syrian opposition provides a credible alternative to the Assad regime. In his remarks at Geneva II, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized a secular regime in Syria, highlighting Russia’s fear of an Islamist coalition ruling the country post-Assad.
Past models of international mediation can tell us about the elements of success for a mediation of the Syrian conflict. Two such models are particularly helpful: the Dayton agreement, which in the 1990s brought an end to Bosnia’s civil war and created the architecture for a post-war federal state; and the Bonn conference of 2001, in which the international community enabled an interim government to come to power in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime. Geneva II is unlikely to become the Syrian war’s Dayton moment unless one key condition is met: the mitigation of divisions in the Syrian opposition. The opposition delegation to Geneva II is far from inclusive, lacks serious grassroots support in the country, and does not control the opposition fighters on the ground.
The competing agendas of regional backers are partly to blame for the divisions inside the Syrian opposition. To date, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are more interested in pursuing competing agendas in Syria by throwing their influence and support behind different armed groups than by working together to help forge a credible and united opposition. These intra-regional divisions are usually best addressed in a Middle East-based mediation mechanism. However, since the demise of the Egyptian-backed quartet, there is no such regional mechanism. Egypt is unlikely to revive the old quartet given its fractious relationship with Turkey. Lakhdar Brahimi is best positioned to fill that void by devoting a good part of his mediation efforts to promoting better coordination between these three regional players.
In Bonn, American and Iranian diplomats worked together to ensure a political settlement in Afghanistan. This was preceded by a modest and quiet U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. We might be facing a similar opportunity in Syria. Whether or not such a collaboration will materialize will depend on two factors, namely progress in negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 on the nuclear file and the decision by Iranian leaders, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to support a conciliatory regional policy in Syria and Lebanon. So far, Iran’s objective in Syria has been to prevent the Syrian regime’s military defeat. Thanks to Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters, this objective has been accomplished. Yet Iranian officials claim that they have also played a more collaborative role in the conflict by persuading Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal and to attend Geneva II. Disinviting Iran from Geneva II thus complicates conflict resolution efforts in Syria. Without Iran, there will be no peace in Syria, though it is not yet clear the conditions and incentives that must be in place for the Iranian regime to abandon the Assad ship.