- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
As currently conceived, Geneva II — the diplomatic process aimed at reaching a political settlement in Syria — is headed for near-certain failure. Continued difficulty in setting a firm meeting date underscores a fundamental obstacle: the Syrian protagonists — particularly the opposition — are not yet ready to talk. Even if both sides come to the table, deep-rooted differences over the purpose, structure, and conduct of the talks as well as a widening rift between the political opposition and armed fighters, likely would lead to the negotiation’s immediate unraveling — with dire consequences on the ground.
Instead, the United Nations should reconceive the Geneva process by adding an interim phase — call it Geneva 1.5 — before attempting to bring the Syrians to the table. Geneva 1.5 would center on a multilateral conference assembling key international and regional actors to address some of the most pressing issues feeding the conflict and to lay the foundation for an eventual Syrian negotiation process.
The Syrian conflict’s severity underscores that neither a disavowal of diplomacy nor its failure are options. Indeed, as Syria burns, the conflict demands a heightened urgency for an international response. The world cannot simply wash its hands of Syria. Nor can it afford to embark on a diplomatic process that is doomed to fail. In either event, Syria would continue its precipitous spiral toward chaos.
As it stands, the Syrian conflict may be at a phase change, transforming from a sectarian civil war to a humanitarian and security nightmare with broad regional spillover. While regime forces appear to be consolidating control over key areas, the overall trajectory remains one of protracted stalemate, with neither the regime nor the rebels likely to prevail militarily.
As the conflict deepens, the precipitous deterioration on the ground has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe amid the growing presence of both jihadist and Shiite foreign fighters. Forty percent of Syria’s population requires humanitarian assistance, and millions are now displaced. Meanwhile, Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters, surpassing Iraq and soon Afghanistan as a destination for jihadist and other militants. Taken together these developments threaten to put Syria, once a solid middle-income country, on a steep slide toward becoming the region’s next Somalia or Afghanistan.
A phased approach to the Geneva process would adopt an "outside-in" strategy to resolving the Syrian conflict. It would build consensus among global and regional players around the need to address critical issues in advance of Syrian talks. This U.N.-sponsored Geneva 1.5 conference would include the United States, Russia, and the European Union. Most importantly, it would gather key regional stakeholders: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Its agenda would center on three goals: improve humanitarian access to besieged areas inside Syria; diminish mounting sectarian tensions in the region and their related proxy dimension in Syria; and provide significant funding for Syria’s beleaguered neighbors, especially Lebanon and Jordan which are hosting the largest refugee populations.
Concerning humanitarian access, the conference should build on October’s U.N. Security Council presidential statement demanding immediate access to 2.5 million Syrians who remain inaccessible to aid convoys. The United Nations is reportedly planning an international meeting to address Syria’s humanitarian crisis that would include the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, further confirming that Syria’s pressing challenges require broader multilateral diplomacy.
By bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table — admittedly a diplomatic heavy lift — Geneva 1.5 would begin to address the core proxy dimensions of the Syrian conflict as well as its broader ripples into Lebanon and Iraq. The recent double suicide bombing targeting the Iranian Embassy in Beirut only underscores how acute the dangers have become. Both regional powers have fueled the crisis via their proxies on the ground, funneling financing, arms, and fighters into the expanding conflict. Opening a dialogue between these key regional players could begin to tamp down sectarian tensions, potentially marking a significant milestone in de-escalating Syria’s conflict.
Securing additional funding to support refugee and host populations in Lebanon and Jordan is also critical. Both countries bear a disproportionate burden of Syria’s spillover and have suffered significant negative impacts on their economies. Hosting more than one million Syrian refugees, Lebanon in particular has paid a huge price. A recent World Bank study notes that Lebanon will lose $7.5 billion and double its unemployment rate as a direct result of the Syrian refugee flows. Jordan, with more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, has witnessed far slower economic growth due to the costs of hosting the Syrian refugee population.
Yet, while the United States has contributed nearly $1.4 billion to Syrian humanitarian assistance efforts, Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have contributed far less. A Geneva 1.5 conference should seek to dramatically increase the humanitarian contributions of key countries that are not paying their fair share, with a particular focus on assistance inside Syria and to the most vulnerable neighbors — Lebanon and Jordan.
Addressing these critical challenges would not only help to de-escalate the conflict, but would also begin to pave the way toward meaningful negotiations among Syria’s warring parties. This approach would seek to assuage the suffering of Syrian civilians by insuring humanitarian access. It would look to de-escalate sectarian tensions that help fuel Syria’s raging conflict and broader regional sectarian spillover by bringing together key regional adversaries. Finally, it would look to provide much-needed support to Lebanon and Jordan, which are suffering disproportionate and potentially destabilizing effects from the Syrian conflict. Taken together, these three goals for a reconceived Geneva process could begin to take the oxygen out of Syria’s raging wildfire and create conditions on the ground that are more propitious for negotiations.
Mona Yacoubian is a Senior Advisor on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.