More wishful thinking on Syria

Peace talks to end Syria's civil war promise to be at least as irrelevant as previous editions.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/REUTERS
Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba (l.) listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry during the start of their meeting at the US Ambassador's residence in Paris January 13, 2014.

There's a key element that's missing from much of the coverage of Syrian "peace talks" scheduled for next week in Geneva: A frank explanation that the meeting is not going to yield an end to the war, a limited cease-fire, or anything resembling a political road map out of a conflict that has already left 150,000 Syrian's dead and displaced millions from their homes. 

The problem is the same one that made previous talks futile: Parties that control the violence won't be present at the meeting, and even if they were, conditions for peace aren't present, given that both rebel factions and the Assad government and its supporters feel they're locked in an existential struggle.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group that the US and other Western actors have promoted as the political leadership of the rebellion, has never developed any control over rebel units on the ground, and certainly not over the jihadi groups that have eclipsed more secular-minded rebels thanks to material support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

The SNC itself has been torn apart by internal political competition and may not participate in the Geneva talks, especially since a decision to do so would further discredit the group among rebel units on the ground. But participate or not, the notion that the SNC speaks for the rebellion remains as fictional today as it has always been. They don't have the power to stop the fighting. 

Not that you'll hear that acknowledged by the great and the good as they insist that "diplomacy" is the answer to Syria's ills. "There is no other political solution," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today. "There will be no political solution for Syria unless 'Geneva II' meets."

Or consider US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in Paris that SNC attendance at the Geneva talks would be a "test of credibility" for the group. But credibility in whose eyes? Perhaps in American ones, but that's of limited utility in ending the war.

In Paris today the US and Russia, a strong supporter of Bashar al-Assad, discussed possible solutions, the BBC reports:

"We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a cease-fire, maybe a localized ceasefire in Aleppo," Mr. Kerry told a news conference after talks with (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria.

Both Mr. Kerry and Lavrov said they hoped ceasefires could be in place before the talks, along with plans for prisoner exchanges and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

Mr. Kerry said it was up to the Syrian government to show they were serious.

Notice what's missing from the discussion? That's right: The Syrian government and the rebels. For two years now well-meaning foreigners with limited leverage have announced plans to obtain cease-fires while never in fact obtaining them (Exhibit A), and there's no reason to expect the current state of play is any different.

From Assad's perspective, rebel infighting between Al Qaeda-style jihadists and more nationalist rebel units has weakened his opponents while terrifying many Syrians at the prospect of a rebel victory, given the jihadis penchant for summary execution of not just enemies but people who don't practice Islam in the fashion they demand. The Syrian Army has been making gains against the rebellion and would be foolish not to press its current advantage.

And Assad has limited incentive to reduce the pressure on the rebels with a cease-fire – particularly since the US and other foreign powers insist that Assad's departure from power must be part of any political settlement. Negotiations that require the other side to eventually fall on his sword as a first step rarely work out.

For the rebels there are two problems. There is no trust that the government would deliver on any promises made after two years of bloodshed that has seen government forces routinely shell civilian neighborhoods in the country's major cities and torture to death political activists in detention. And with such a fractured and leaderless insurgency it isn't possible to guarantee a cease-fire from their side anyways.

What of outside powers? Well, the US has yet to abandon it's "Assad must go" rhetoric, which queers the pitch for any good faith diplomatic negotiations. The Russians seem likely to continue backing Assad, as well Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militant movement Hezbollah. They will do so because they see their interests as secured by Assad staying in power, and threatened if he's overthrown and a Sunni Arab government comes to power. Saudi Arabia meanwhile will continue to back rebel jihadis, since any letup in the pressure on Assad increases the chances he survives.

None of this is intended to downplay the daily horrors of Syria's civil war, or the risks of the conflict spreading to neighbors like Lebanon. But wishing that the conditions are ripe for peace talks, or that there really is a coherent rebel leadership to participate in them, won't make it so.

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