It is a testament to the state of modern diplomatic relations that most observers, as well as participants, viewed the Geneva II talks with very low expectations. The negotiations, led by the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, are an attempt at a political solution to the ongoing violence between the Syrian government and rebel groups. The civil war that began in 2010 has claimed over 130,000 lives and dis- placed a further nine million.
Despite the frightening levels of violence, the international community has been reluctant to enter into the conflict. Though national leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron called for intervention, their constituents and legislatures were hesitant to embark on another Middle Eastern venture.
A UN resolution to intervene was proposed but promptly discontinued thanks to the intractability of Assad’s allies in the Security Council. After much time and toil, all parties managed to agree upon a proposal for a transitional government that empowered those in the opposition and called for democratic elections. This proposal, outlined last year in the Geneva Communiqué, is at the heart of the ongoing talks.
The talks themselves are progress- ing at a snail’s pace, neither side willing to make too much of a com- promise. Earlier this year the Assad administration refused any possibility that involved a concession of power, while the leaders of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces initially re- fused to participate in any peace talks without the promise of Assad’s abdication. Under pressure from the international community, both grudgingly approached the negotiation table.
Last week, both sides agreed upon a ceasefire in the rebel-held city of Homs. This allowed for a small group of 600 civilians to leave while humanitarian aid entered the city in the form of the Syrian Red Crescent. This development is offset, however, by the fact that nearly 1,900 people have died since the conference began on 22 January. The level of violence is a consequence of the civil war but also a symptom of a more complex, insidious disease plaguing the country.
Syria lies on the fault line of the Sunni-Shiite divide which polarizes the Middle East. The Assad regime is allied closely with other Shiite factions, most notably Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Iran sup- plies the Syrians with weapons and funding and – since May of last year – Hezbollah has publicly provided personnel.
All three, to some extent, view the conflict as a battle in the war against Sunnis for domination over the region as a whole. A Hezbollah commander defined the conflict as “a war not just against us, but against humanity”, by which he meant the Shiite faith, adding that “it is one that we will win”.
Over the course of the three-year conflict, the Sunni opposition has likewise been tied to foreign governments: both the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have allegedly funded certain rebel factions.
The US government has described the negotiations as “the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution”. But that opportunity is constricted; despite the presence of the US-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and representatives from the Assad government, there are notable absences.
The most powerful rebel coalition, The Islamic Front, has denounced the NCSROF for negotiating with Assad. Iran, Assad’s key ally, was uninvited from the conference after it refused to endorse the Communiqué.
This disjointedness is characteristic of the political landscape. Both the Assad regime and the rebels lack the legitimacy that a newly elected government would require. Neither Assad nor the rebel groups, many of whom do not hail from Syria, seem to have any interest in a transitional government.
Nor are the rebels aligned under a single banner. Even if there was an agreement that satisfied both delegations to Geneva, as well as their allies, there is no certainty that it would signal a ceasefire by all of the fragmented groups.
With so many entrenched positions, both internal and external, progress remains slow. The peace conference sends the discourse in a positive direction but, with so many players involved it will be hard to find common ground. While diplomats work in Geneva, people die in Syria.
In a recent interview Barack Obama remarked that he could find no example in history of American intervention pacifying a country such as Syria. In fact, nowhere in history has such a country, in the middle of both physical and ideological conflict, been pacified through diplomacy. For Syria, both the past and future look increasingly grim.