Hyped as crucial, but downplayed at same time: a glance at ‘Geneva II’

AP

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon kicked off peace talks for Syria in Switzerland on Wednesday, but said “formidable” challenges remain. Below is a glance at the so-called Geneva II meet.

What’s at stake

Fighting in Syria has killed more than 130,000 people and left millions of refugees, either in camps or squats in neighboring countries or within Syria’s borders. The economy has been devastated, and bombs and gunfire have ruined once thriving cities. The rebellion started in March 2011, and Syria has seen little but violence ever since.

For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, there was scant interest in a settlement with Assad’s government. “We lost our faith in the international community. We don’t care about the Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not,” said Ibraheem Qaddah, a former rebel fighter with an amputated arm. “We have lost a lot of relatives and friends and family members in the fighting, and we’ve lost Syria.”

New leadership unlikely

Syria’s Western-backed Syrian National Coalition wants a transitional government to replace Assad, reiterating Tuesday that it finally decided to attend the peace conference in order to establish a transitional government with full executive powers “in which killers and criminals do not participate.”

That’s the stated goal of the gathering agreed upon by international powers in preliminary talks in June.

But Assad, whose soldiers have notched up recent military victories, points to the ascendance of Islamic militants to temper Western enthusiasm for the rebels. He has said he has no intention of stepping down and may run again as president this year.

Need for ‘small steps’

“We must take small steps,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said in Paris on Tuesday.

A comprehensive end to the war in Syria is probably not possible, but smaller goals may be achievable.

The regime last week proposed a cease-fire in the embattled city of Aleppo and a prisoner exchange with the opposition, but left the terms vague. The opposition has accused the government of reneging on promises and declaring cease-fires to buy time.

Prisoner exchanges pose similar problems: With no unified command, the prospect of pulling together a rebel database of those detained seems impossibly remote. And the regime operated secret prisons for years, if not decades, before the fighting started. That doesn’t preclude small exchanges and — as Steinmeier said — small steps are the first goal.

Humanitarian corridors would seem a likely starting point, but with many rebels bolting from the Syrian National Council, it’s unclear how the shrinking umbrella group could enforce any deal it reaches.

How it could unfold

The first direct talks between the opposition and the regime are scheduled to start Friday. Those discussions are expected to last seven to 10 days, then break for a short time. Any agreements reached between the two sides would have to be thoroughly vetted. In the case of the opposition, that will be complicated by defections and its total inability to influence fighters within Syria.

In Syria, neither side is looking for — or expecting — a quick end to the fighting. And the fighting has evolved into a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as touching on post-Cold War tensions between Russia and the U.S.