NEW YORK – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is on a roll. Against the odds, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are alive; the U.S.-Russia agreement for removing Syria’s chemical weapons is working; and the U.S.-Afghan security pact is almost final.
In trying to convene a United Nations-sponsored meeting to end Syria’s civil war, however, Kerry may be overreaching.
Last week, along with the “London 11” — which represents the core group of nations belonging to the Friends of the Syrian People — Kerry seemed determined to push for a round of meetings in Geneva, perhaps as early as next month.
That would be a mistake. Middle East peace conferences have historically been good for one of two things: beginning a credible negotiation process or concluding one. Another hastily conceived gathering in Geneva — the first meeting was held in June 2012 — is unlikely to accomplish either goal.
To have any chance for success, the talks must meet two conditions that seem out of reach: There must be a U.S.-Russian understanding that President Bashar Assad of Syria will leave power, and a unified opposition to the regime, including the groups that are doing the fighting, must be fully represented.
An ill-prepared conference, however, would only lead to a further weakening of the opposition and a boost for Assad.
Kerry’s sense of urgency for ending Syria’s civil war is understandable. The conflict is a moral, humanitarian and strategic disaster. After almost three years, it has caused more than 100,000 deaths, created 2.5 million refugees — with millions more internally displaced — and destroyed large areas of the country.
The notion that a political solution could end this brutal war is compelling. However, the idea that a successful political process is possible under present circumstances is fantastical. Too much blood has flowed to allow the regime and the divided opposition to find an alternative to violent struggle.
At best, another meeting would result only in more talk. Worse, at the moment, the Russians seem to see Geneva as a way to maintain the status quo, not to effect a real transition. The agreement between the U.S. and Russia that compelled Assad to begin giving up his chemical weapons is a positive development, but it isn’t predictive.
The main U.S. objective in the chemical-weapons deal was to avoid military action — a goal that is shared by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Putin was intent on helping Assad shore up his own position. The complex and lengthy process of removing Syria’s chemical weapons bought time for the regime. The U.S. acquiesced, in a quid-pro-quo that could be interpreted as exchanging the elimination of Syria’s chemical-weapons capability for keeping Assad in power. Indeed, there are indications that in the wake of the deal, Russia has stepped up its weapons deliveries to Syria.
In addition, there is no indication Russia is looking for alternatives to Assad. Given its support for the regime, and the billions of dollars Russia holds in Syrian debt and government contracts, it is reasonable to believe that no successive government would grant Russia the privileged position it now enjoys in Syria.
There is also the question of which rebel groups would participate in talks. The Syrian regime has the advantage of being unified and, with the support of Russia and Iran, it would be further legitimized by negotiations.
The rebels are divided, however. The main external group, the Syrian National Coalition, which operates from Turkey, is favorable to the U.S., but it is just one of many insurgent organizations. The real powers are the opposition forces fighting and organizing inside the country. Some of these are acceptable to the West; others, of a more extreme jihadi bent, aren’t. Unless the acceptable groups doing the fighting are represented, the negotiations won’t appear legitimate to the Syrian people and will fail to produce an authoritative transitional government.
Kerry should remember that the Hippocratic Oath — first do no harm — also applies to diplomacy. Just because a conference can be convened doesn’t mean it should be. Before anything substantial can be accomplished through negotiations, there are some essential conditions to be met, including an understanding with Russia that the purpose is to begin a process of transition beyond the Assad government; a clear commitment to provide the opposition with more money, military aid and training; and the presence of a representative unified opposition.
A conference convened without these guiding principles risks making matters worse by legitimizing a murderous regime and showcasing a fractious and dysfunctional opposition.
If a second Geneva conference fails, it is unlikely another could be held anytime soon. Then Syria’s fate won’t be decided at a negotiating table in Switzerland but on the battlegrounds of a seemingly endless, bloody and vicious civil war.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.