Syria Diplomacy and the Way Forward

If any future negotiations are to succeed, the international community must be willing to back the talks with a credible use of force.

It came as little surprise to most observers that the first round of peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition, dubbed Geneva II, ended with no substantive progress. The conference did little to narrow the gap between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, led by Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chairman Ahmad Asi Al-Jarba. The conference was full of hostile speeches and inflammatory rhetoric. Important players were missing and Assad’s delegation displayed unwillingness to compromise. However, the Syrian conflict, which has claimed over 130,000 lives, internally displaced 6.5 million people, and forced 2.4 million Syrians to flee the country, cannot be solved by anything other than a political solution. The international community must back a peace deal that forms a transitional government based on respect for democracy, human rights and liberties. Global actors must be prepared to use credible threats to pressure the regime to discuss a transitional body and ensure that a settlement is respected.

Failure of Geneva II

Expectations of a breakthrough were very low on the eve of the Geneva II peace conference, as the regime and the opposition would sit at the negotiating table for the first time. Until the last minute, participation of the regime and Iran in the conference remained a contentious issue. The basic framework of the conference also remained murky. With the exception of the Syrian regime’s delegation, all 30 nations that attended the conference signed the Geneva I protocol and agreed to the goal of creating a transitional government based on “mutual consent” with “full executive powers.” Although a final transitional government was the ultimate goal, the focus quickly shifted to “confidence building measures,” specifically local ceasefires, prisoner exchanges and allowing access to humanitarian aid, particularly in the besieged city of Homs. Despite direct talks between the delegates of the Assad regime and opposition, the conference ended with minimal, if any, progress.

The conference was characterized by a disagreement on whether to focus on the transitional process or “terrorism” issues. Several scheduled meetings were postponed or canceled due to the regime’s reluctance to discuss a transitional body. Rather than agreeing to the Geneva I protocol, Assad’s delegation introduced a “declaration of principles” that aimed to preserve state institutions and combat the threat from “terrorist” groups. Unsurprisingly, the SNC delegation rejected the declaration, accusing the regime delegates of “derailing talks and straying from the Geneva II Communique.” While “a positive step forward” was declared after the government’s delegation agreed to use the Geneva I protocol as the basis for the talks, both sides maintain extremely different interpretations of a “political transition” and the regime continued to insist that the first topic discussed should be the fight against “terrorism.”

The conflicting agendas of the two warring sides left little room for negotiation. The only result of 10 days of talks was the regime’s offer to allow women and children to leave a blockaded area of Homs. The proposal raised many objections, as Western diplomats insisted that evacuation is not an alternative to allowing humanitarian aid and threatened to challenge the regime in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if aid delivery was not permitted soon. At the end, there was no resolution on the humanitarian issue in Homs or even the evacuation of civilians. There are very few indications that the next round of negotiations will overcome the deeply conflicting perspectives on the ultimate goal of the negotiations.

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