Could discussing humanitarian issues lead to disaster at the Geneva II talks?
Following weeks of bitter infighting and several postponements, a deeply splintered Syrian coalition voted in Istanbul on Saturday to attend the Geneva II talks that are scheduled to begin in Montreux under U.N. auspices on Jan. 22. In a separate meeting the same day in Ankara, the coalition vote was endorsed by key groups within the armed opposition, including the Free Syrian Army and all but one faction of the Islamic Front. The vote removed the last remaining obstacle to convening the talks. It did little, however, to raise expectations about what they will achieve.
Despite the dim hope that a political solution can be found in this round of talks, perhaps the most disastrous turn would be for negotiators to be deviate from the mission of the talks: transitioning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power.
The negotiations are intended to focus on the implementation of a transition process approved by the U.N. Security Council in July 2012 — the Geneva I protocol negotiated between the U.S. and Russia by then special envoy Kofi Annan. Yet differences between parties are so vast that the talks are almost certain to end in failure. The U.S. and Russia remain deeply divided in their interpretations of Geneva I. The government of Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly set out positions contrary to the Geneva I framework. Last week, in a letter from Assad’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the regime said it disagreed with "certain elements" of the proposed agenda, and expressed its intent to use the Geneva meeting to focus on "counterterrorism."
Muallem’s letter led to quick riposte from the U.S. Speaking from the State Department’s briefing room in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry bluntly rejected "recent revisionism as to why the international community will be gathering in Montreux." Directing his comments at the Assad regime’s attempt to "muddy the waters," Kerry affirmed that the "purpose, the sole purpose" of the Geneva II talks is "the implementation of Geneva I." Specifically, he said, the goal was to build toward a "governing body with full executive powers established by mutual consent" that could smooth Assad’s transition out of power.
Kerry’s statement is an important reminder of where parties to the talks need to focus their efforts throughout Geneva II, for however long the process continues. Staying on track will not be easy, and not only because the opposition is fragmented and the Assad regime determined to do everything it can to undermine the Geneva I framework — conditions on the ground pose the most significant obstacle to success. The regime’s position has been strengthened by recent, if limited, military gains, while the opposition is insecure and divided — neither side has incentives to compromise. In the absence of a mutually hurting stalemate, the basic conditions required for negotiations to succeed are not yet present.
Anticipating the likelihood of failure, the run-up to Geneva II has been accompanied by a wave of well-intentioned but misguided recommendations to broaden the agenda. On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s lead editorial questioned: "Why insist that this long-shot objective is Geneva 2’s exclusive goal?" The Post advised Kerry to concentrate instead on "palliative measures" to salvage something from the talks, including a cease-fire in Aleppo and the opening of humanitarian corridors. Similar recommendations to prevent Geneva II from becoming a "hopeless exercise" have been put forward by leading analysts of the Middle East in both the U.S. and Europe, and by high-profile former U.S. diplomats.
The impulse to prevent failure and keep a Geneva process alive is understandable. Geneva remains the only diplomatic framework that is supported by both the U.S. and Russia. Yet the most effective way to achieve this goal is to ensure that all diplomatic energy and resources are directed toward achieving the meaningful political transition that Kerry claimed as the "sole purpose" of the Geneva II talks. Second-order objectives are appealing when first-order goals appear out of reach, but the impulse to move too quickly to shift the focus of Geneva II carries its own considerable costs, and should be avoided for a number of reasons.
First, broadening the agenda will shift attention from the hard work of addressing the conflict’s causes to palliative agreements aimed at mitigating its effects. Responding to the consequences of conflict is essential, of course. The imperative of securing ceasefires to reduce the terror and destruction of indiscriminate regime attacks, together with the urgency, intensity, and sheer scale of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, certainly demand more attention. But Geneva II is the only framework yet established that will bring all relevant actors together to begin the long, difficult work of actually ending the conflict. The reality that this first meeting will not produce an agreement is not sufficient reason to shift focus in advance — doing so will establish a precedent that will be difficult to overcome in the future.
Second, exploiting the presence of key actors in Montreux to make headway on humanitarian issues poses significant risks for the coalition and its leadership — it could find itself even further discredited if it agrees to be diverted from its core purpose in participating in the Geneva II talks. Divisions about whether to attend Geneva have already deepened fractures within a notoriously fractious opposition. Among armed groups and Syrians living in opposition-held areas, support for Geneva is volatile and highly contingent on perceptions of how well the coalition delegation performs. Its ability to keep talks focused on a political transition, and its willingness to walk away if the regime makes this impossible, will be critical in shaping public perceptions about the value of the Geneva process more broadly. Securing agreements on other issues may save face for the U.S. and other international actors, but its effect on the Syrian opposition would be decidedly damaging.
Third, a focus on palliative measures plays directly into the hands of the Assad regime, underscoring the weakness of the opposition and its international supporters. The regime has shown itself to be quite adept in using international agreements to bolster its legitimacy, consolidate its authority, avoid accountability, and reassert its intent to remain in power. Using the Geneva talks to reach further such agreements without progress on core political issues will only give the regime further ammunition with which to advance these aims, to the detriment of the opposition. In contrast, insisting that the only agenda for Geneva II is implementation of Geneva I and the beginning of a political transition will force the regime to contend with the issue it least wants to address: an outcome in which Bashar al-Assad will have no role to play. It will also signal to Russia that it will not be able to exploit the Geneva II framework to shore up the Assad regime.
To shift the focus of Geneva talks away from core political issues would be a significant mistake. It would continue a process of re-legitimating the Assad regime, further delay accountability to its tens of thousands of victims, and render even less likely the prospects for a political transition in the future. To broaden the agenda will be a vindication of the Assad regime’s strategy of diverting attention from Geneva I. It would send a clear signal that the Geneva I framework — already on life support — will be all but dead and buried. If the U.S. and other international actors wish to prepare for failure in Montreux, their best bet is not to change the subject, but to figure out how to change conditions on the ground and create the conditions for the next round of negotiations to succeed.