Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, and the UN failed this week to agree on the details and date for a Geneva II meeting to help resolve the Syrian crisis. UN and Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had hoped to hold the meeting in late November, but admitted that it might have to be put off until early 2014. Obstacles included disagreement over the participation of Iran and over the role of Syrian president Assad in the process, as well as disunity among the opposition.
Some observers have given up hope in the Geneva process, arguing that neither the Assad regime nor the opposition are ready or seriously willing to negotiate. However, international and regional cooperation through a Geneva II or similar process is still critical. The meeting should at the very least push for serious ceasefires and de-escalation of conflict, major initiatives to assist the over nine million people displaced or otherwise devastated by the war, and strategies to aid neighboring countries that are dealing with massive refugee populations. It should also begin the arduous process of moving toward a political resolution to this conflict.
The recent chemical weapons deal in which the Assad regime gave up its main strategic weapon demonstrates two things: when the United States exerts serious pressure and when it can agree on a way forward with Russia, the Assad regime can be made to make major concessions. The United States and Russia have an increased amount of common ground over Syria in that they both focus on the rising threat of radical jihadis and both now favor a form of political transition that would not dismantle the Syrian state and armed forces. But what is missing, and what is different from the chemical weapons breakthrough, is that the United States and its friends are asking the Assad regime to come to the bargaining table and make major political concessions without applying adequate pressure on the regime to cause it to feel the need for such concessions.
The United States has declined to provide—or to allow others to adequately provide—major and effective military and financial support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that could overturn Assad’s air and tank advantage and seriously threaten the regime. Only at an eleventh hour would such a regime make serious concessions, and that hour seems to have gotten further away, not closer. The regime has correctly surmised that the United States and its allies will not seriously empower the FSA, nor will they intervene themselves. The threat of U.S. bombing elicited a major concession on chemical weapons, but unless it is followed by more pressure, that concession has just bought Assad more, not less, time.
The lack of major support for the FSA has also led to the splintering of the opposition. The war has morphed from a two-sided conflict to one involving at least four groups: the regime, the FSA, the radical jihadis, and the Kurds. Each now holds different parts of the country, pursues separate agendas, and enjoys different external backers.
The regime has been pleased by the splintering of the opposition. With help from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia it has been able to regroup and hold on to a strategic core of the country, including most of the capital, the Alawite-majority coastline in the west, and the strategic corridor that links the two, leaving much of the north and east, and parts of the south, to various rebel groups.
Yet the regime and its supporters are also exhausted. Most of them realize that while they can play defense against the splintered opposition, the regime is not going to regain control of the country. The units of the army and Republican Guard that have been fighting are dilapidated and fatigued from two and half years of constant fighting. Help from the irregular shabiha, Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraqi Shi`i fighters has allowed them to hold their ground, but it does not present a military solution. While Assad has continued to talk a tough game, the conditions of his regime and supporters, as well as the public positions of his Russian and Iranian backers, indicate that the regime could be convinced—especially if more pressure is brought to bear—to contemplate political negotiations.
What hangs in the balance for most members and supporters of the regime is the fate of the Alawi community, the armed forces, the Ba`th party, and the state bureaucracy, as well as the Christians, Druze, other minorities, and some among the secular or moderate Sunnis that are still with the regime. The moderate opposition represented by the Syrian National Coalition has focused on the departure of Assad and has implied that these questions can be worked out after his overthrow, but it has failed to put forward a detailed plan that would seriously answer these concerns and reassure regime members and supporters that they might have a future through negotiating with the moderate opposition. Nor do regime members and supporters feel that the moderate opposition or the FSA has serious backing such as to make negotiating with it worthwhile. The jihadi opposition, meanwhile, has strengthened the Assad regime by convincing all these constituencies that they have no future if the jihadis have their way.
The Syrian conflict does not have a military solution, but military pressure needs to be part of the mix that pushes a political resolution closer. The FSA needs to receive much more military support in order to achieve three goals: putting serious pressure on the Assad regime; pushing back radical jihadis; and consolidating the areas under its control. But military pressure alone will not bring about a resolution. Just as increasing pressure must be put on the Assad regime to push it toward major concessions, pressure must also be put on the moderate opposition to put forward a serious negotiating position. Indeed, as a prerequisite to that, there needs to be agreement among the opposition’s backers that serious negotiation is the only way forward.
Some of the Gulf backers of the opposition still cling to the belief that a military victory is possible, without adequately examining the facts on the ground, and perhaps without much worry as to whether moderates or radical jihadis end up having the upper hand. But until they too decide that serious negotiation—accompanied by strong military pressure—is the only way forward, the Syrian opposition will probably remain fragmented and unable to present a strong position at the negotiating table.
In conclusion, the convening of a Geneva II conference is essential for achieving short-term goals of de-escalation and humanitarian assistance, and for beginning the long process of political negotiation. But for the latter to succeed, much more pressure—including military—needs to be brought to bear, and the opposition and its backers need to agree on a credible and powerful negotiating position that can help push the regime and its constituencies to the negotiating table. Sadly, the war in Syria is likely to go on for several years, but the human suffering can be reduced and the complicated political process can at least get underway; it might not bear fruit in Geneva II, but perhaps in Geneva VI or VII.