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How to piece Syria back together

If direct talks between the Syrian regime and a main opposition group proceed, the goal should be to create a transitional power with legitimacy to hold elections. For now, a vacuum of legitimacy requires foreign pressure for an agreement.

Syrian children play at a school for refugees in Iraq Jan. 23. The first direct talks between the Assad regime and a main opposition group are set to begin Friday in Geneva.

After months of diplomacy by Russia, the United States, and other nations, Syria’s regime and the main opposition National Coalition are set to start their first face-to-face negotiations Friday. The least that can be expected, assuming the talks don’t falter, is a truce in a civil war that continues to shock the world’s conscience with its atrocities.

The best that can be expected is a seed of consensus over how to create a legitimate government that will start to put Syria back together. This prospect of a real peace, however, is made difficult by the fact that each side comes to the table with weak legitimacy.

President Bashar al-Assad has lost the support of Syria’s Sunni majority by his ruthless repression, including the use of torture and chemical weaponss. On the other side, the National Coalition is fractured as a political opposition and largely ignored by rebels groups fighting within Syria. In this vacuum of legitimacy, it is up to other countries – either out of genuine concern over the slaughter in Syria or with a national interest in the war’s outcome – to force a consensus at the talks in Switzerland.

Oddly, it is Mr. Assad and his main backer, Iran, that want to settle the question of legitimacy through elections. This may seem like an embrace of democracy. But given how the Assad family dynasty and Iran’s ruling clerics have rigged elections in their countries, this path would require any election in Syria to be well-monitored by foreign groups and conducted without a war going on. Few expect Assad, who now holds the upper hand in the conflict, to agree to such a path.

The more likely course is an agreement in Geneva on a transitional government that will have enough power to hold fair elections and include Syrian leaders respected by both sides. That was the outline set forth by the United Nations in 2012 and on now needs a strong diplomatic push, especially by Russia, Europe, and the US.

With nearly a third of Syrians displaced after almost three years of fighting, elections cannot be held soon. All sides must instead find alternative ways to create the qualities of a democracy without a formal democracy: stability, consensus, effective governance, and most of all, a sense of community around an inclusive identity.

Other countries can guide the negotiations toward those goals. Ultimately, however, the Syrian sides must develop enough trust in each other that they seek an agreement. What legitimacy they didn’t bring to the table can be forged at the table by achieving an agreement for all Syrians.

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