by Tyler Cullis
On Jan. 22, 2014, the long-promised Geneva II conference will begin, with close to 30 countries sending delegations in a last-ditch bid to end the violence in Syria. The talks, which will include both the Assad regime and parts of the opposition, hope to win support for a mutual ceasefire and to forge a political settlement to nearly three years of civil war. Nevertheless, optimism is in short order. Below are critical questions the Geneva II conference will need to answer and address if peace is to prove possible.
Who does the Syrian opposition represent?
Syria’s opposition is split on attending the talks. The Syrian National Council has voiced its opposition to any negotiations with the Assad regime, threatening to leave the larger Syrian National Coalition should talks move forward under their aegis. Major parts of the opposition — including the Islamic Front and al-Qaeda-linked groups — have publicly stated that they will not be bound to any agreement reached during the conference. Thus, whether opposition representatives can uphold their end of any bargain reached in Geneva is an increasingly dim prospect.
That makes negotiation all the more difficult. Without a strong, unified opposition capable of binding all parties to an agreement, it is highly unlikely that the Assad regime will commit to a ceasefire — the obvious first step to a political resolution. In this way, a problem that has plagued Syria’s rebels all along — lack of cohesion — threatens to undermine the talks before they even begin.
Will Iran attend the talks in Geneva?
As of this posting Iran has yet to be formally invited to the Geneva II conference. According to the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lashkar Brahimi, the UN welcomes Iran’s participation in Geneva, but the United States has blocked efforts to extend an invitation. Talks are said to continue on this matter, up to and until Jan. 22, but it is looking less and less likely that Iran will be permitted to formally attend the negotiations.
Nonetheless, Iran has proven a resilient partner to the Syrian government in the face of regional and international disapprobation, so it is highly unlikely that the Assad regime would consider any deal at Geneva without Iran’s direct input. Moreover, Brahimi has noted that he has a direct line of contact with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Even if not formal, then, Iran’s presence in Geneva will nevertheless be felt by conference participants.
What kind of political resolution is being considered?
A product of the Action Group on Syria, the Jun. 30, 2012 Geneva Communique, is ostensibly the basis for the Geneva II negotiations. The Communique, which assumes the continued “national unity and territorial integrity” of Syria, recognizes the need for a mutual ceasefire and for the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would be inclusive of all parties to the conflict. This body would then consider constitutional reforms.
However, the Geneva Communique is not the only available solution. In fact, viable alternatives are being widely discussed.
For instance, the Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, is being considered as an alternative model. Just as the Taif Agreement ended the privileged status of the Christian Maronites and heralded an era of (unsteady) co-existence between the various Lebanese sects, so too must a political resolution to the Syrian conflict bring to a close the privileges of the Alawites and forge a power-sharing agreement between the contending parties. A political resolution à la Taif would be full of bumps in the road, as Lebanon can attest to, but would at least provide a mechanism to peacefully resolve political disputes when and as they arise.
What is the cost of failure?
Since the civil war intensified in the summer of 2012, tens of thousands of Syrians have died and millions more have been uprooted from their homes. This is the status quo, which will remain intact so long as the parties refuse a political compromise.
For the United States, there will be big questions in need of answers including how long it can endure a conflict that is proving fertile ground for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Already, as Ryan Crocker’s recent remarks highlight, some U.S. policymakers are seriously considering a future with Assad and thus are urging the White House to open up a line of communication. U.S. policy might thus be forced to undergo a turnabout in the months ahead if no settlement is found.
The worst outcome of failure, however, is that the civil war will render permanent the disintegration of Syria, as the Assad regime, its opposition and the Kurds fight to a stalemate and exercise political autonomy within their respective territorial spheres of control. If this is the case, the United States, its European partners and the Middle East region might have a bigger problem on its hands than it ever have imagined.