Secretary of State John Kerry is on a roll. Against the odds, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are alive; the U.S.-Russia agreement for removing Syria’s chemical weapons is working; and the U.S.-Afghan security pact is almost final.
In trying to convene a United Nations-sponsored meeting to end Syria’s civil war, however, Kerry may be overreaching.
Last week, along with the “London 11” — which represents the core group of nations belonging to the Friends of the Syrian People — Kerry seemed determined to push for a round of meetings in Geneva, perhaps as early as next month.
That would be a mistake. Middle East peace conferences have historically been good for one of two things: beginning a credible negotiation process or concluding one. Another hastily conceived gathering in Geneva — the first meeting was held in June 2012 — is unlikely to accomplish either goal.
To have any chance for success, the talks must meet two conditions that seem out of reach: There must be a U.S.-Russian understanding that President Bashar Assad of Syria will leave power, and a unified opposition to the regime, including the groups that are doing the fighting, must be fully represented.
An ill-prepared conference, however, would only lead to a further weakening of the opposition and a boost for Assad.
Kerry’s sense of urgency for ending Syria’s civil war is understandable. The conflict is a moral, humanitarian and strategic disaster. After almost three years, it has caused more than 100,000 deaths, created 2.5 million refugees — with millions more internally displaced — and destroyed large areas of the country.
The notion that a political solution could end this brutal war is compelling. However, the idea that a successful political process is possible under present circumstances is fantastical. Too much blood has flowed to allow the regime and the divided opposition to find an alternative to violent struggle (though the carnage hasn’t been enough to force a divided, preoccupied and self-interested international community to intercede effectively).
At best, another meeting would result only in more talk. Worse, at the moment, the Russians seem to see Geneva as a way to maintain the status quo, not to effect a real transition. The agreement between the United States and Russia that compelled Assad to begin giving up his chemical weapons is a positive development, but it isn’t predictive. The main U.S. objective in the chemical-weapons deal was to avoid military action — a goal that is shared by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, Putin was intent on helping Assad shore up his own position. The complex and lengthy process of removing Syria’s chemical weapons bought time for the regime. The U.S. acquiesced, in a quid-pro-quo that could be interpreted as exchanging the elimination of Syria’s chemical-weapons capability for keeping Assad in power. Indeed, there are indications that in the wake of the deal, Russia has stepped up its weapons deliveries to Syria.
In addition, there is no indication Russia is looking for alternatives to Assad. Given its support for the regime, and the billions of dollars Russia holds in Syrian debt and government contracts, it is reasonable to believe that no successive government would grant Russia the privileged position it now enjoys in Syria.