Today the first peace talks of the Syrian Civil War began in Geneva. These talks look pretty good on paper. The Syrian government will be talking with a number of Western governments, the UN, Russia, China, Arab League countries, Iran and most importantly, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the ‘official’ rebel group. In reality however, there are a huge number of problems. There are divisions between the UN, the West and Russia, arguments over the role of Iran and the issue of the myriad other rebel groups in Syria, not to mention the huge gap between the Syrian government and the SNC. So what issues will these problems cause? And why is this actually “Geneva II”?
Geneva I was held 18 months ago, and wasn’t really peace talks. Instead it was a conference between the US, UK, Russia, China and the UN over what peace in Syria should look like. The “Geneva Communique” that was released was vague and filled with diplomatic language, but the two key points were the establishment of a transitional government to lead the country until free and democratic elections. After agreement on this, the consensus immediately broke down, with the US saying President Assad could not remain in power through the transitional government, and Russia saying this was entirely possible. This is the first of the problems with Geneva II.
The three main outside parties to the Syrian crisis, the US, Russia and the UN can’t really agree on what they want to see in Syria. The US and UN both want Assad out, but Russia would prefer him to stay, as he is their biggest ally in the Middle-East. The UN and Russia both want Iran to take part in the talks, as they are supporting the Syrian government and heavily involved in the conflict, whereas the US would prefer to deny one of their biggest enemies a place at the table. On Monday the UN invited Syria to the first round of talks taking place on Wednesday, taking the US by surprise. However a day later the UN withdrew the invitation, saying that Iran had not accepted the conditions for talks. If the outside parties not fighting and dying in the conflict can’t agree, how can the Syrians?
Another huge obstacle for Geneva II is that the fact that not only is the Syrian National Coalition not the only rebel group, but it is not even the strongest. Firstly, the SNC is only political, mainly made up of exiled politicians. While they support the Free Syrian Army, they aren’t the same organisation, and the FSA decided not to take part in peace talks. Secondly, the most effective rebel forces in Syria are Islamic. The most ‘moderate’ of the Islamist groups, the Islamic Front, called the talks “treason”. That doesn’t even take in to account groups like the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, two powerful rebel groups who carry out suicide bombings, are part of al-Qaeda, and are also the most effective groups on the ground. Finally, there are the Kurdish rebels, who aren’t represented at Geneva II, and won’t accept any peace without some autonomy for themselves. Even in the unlikely event of an agreement between the SNC and Assad, what will be done about these groups?
Lastly, this is the main problem of Geneva II: that it will be almost impossible to get Assad and the SNC to agree on anything. The three year civil war has created enormous hatred, and made compromise almost impossible. After so much blood it is understandable that rebel groups can’t stand the thought of compromising with the dictator causing much of it. And the further the conflict goes on, the closer some rebel groups move to being the ‘terrorists’ Assad called them at the start of the conflict. Al-Nusra and ISIS are already acknowledged by everyone to be terrorist groups. The most that can be hoped for in terms of agreement between the two sides is for a compromise over the delivery of humanitarian aid.
So what would be needed for future peace talks to succeed? The main thing would be for the rebels to unite into a single group that could negotiate with Assad. This would increase their military strength, which would in turn benefit their bargaining position. At the moment Assad holds all the cards, and as long as he is backed by Russia and Iran, it’s hard to see him losing. This is the second thing that needs to happen, the US and UN need to negotiate behind the scenes with Iran but especially Russia. Any pressure Russia puts on Syria will be taken extremely seriously, and the US needs to attempt to find some common ground with the Russians. Finally, the government and rebels need to accept that total victory on their terms is impossible. Without any of these things taking place, it looks like these peace talks are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun.