Stalemate in Syria

Expectations were low for the first round of Syrian peace talks, which convened in Montreaux, Switzerland, last month, and those expectations were met. A week of negotiations began in controversy, proceeded in only the most formal of terms, then, after marking some small progress, concluded with a whimper, with a second round uncertain.

It says a great deal that negotiators consider the willingness of both sides to be in the same room at the same time an accomplishment. The danger now is that the Syrian government will use formal negotiations as cover while stepping up its assaults on the rebels. The world must demand that Damascus be held accountable for its actions, even as — or if — talks proceed.

An extraordinarily bloody civil war has raged in Syria for more than two years. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and as many as 6 million people — nearly a third of the population — have become refugees.

The violence has been indiscriminate with civilians frequently targeted. There is, without question, great indifference to the victims of attacks and the damage that is being done. There is dispute over who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, as civilians, rebels and government soldiers alike have fallen victim to them. What’s indisputable is the fact that the Assad government possessed a large chemical weapons arsenal.

The talks began on Jan. 25 with drama. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to join the meeting, a seemingly smart move since Iran is one of Syria’s key backers — providing men and material — and a country with significant interests in the resolution of the crisis. The invitation triggered consternation among other participants, who viewed Tehran as a potential spoiler.

More significantly, the Iranian government refused to back the ostensible terms of the talks, the so-called Geneva I Communique laid out in June 2012, which had called for a Syrian transitional government. Within a day, Moon’s invitation was withdrawn.

When they began, the parties talked past each other. The rebels demanded that Syrian leader Bashar Assad step down and not be part of any transitional government. That position was rejected outright by Syrian negotiators, who instead denounced terrorists who they said were destabilizing the country and threatened to turn Syria into an al-Qaida stronghold.

The antagonism was so strong that the two groups refused to even meet in the same room. By week’s end, however, they were at least addressing each other, even if the messages were largely insulting and nonresponsive.

Putting the best possible face on the meeting, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he found some common ground among the two sides, but conceded that it is “a modest beginning.”

Outside observers were more skeptical, noting that there was no agreement to resume talks — currently scheduled to begin again Feb. 10 — nor was there the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the besieged town of Homs, where thousands of civilians lack food, water and other supplies. U.N. officials blame the Damascus government for the holdup in the delivery of supplies, calling the situation “wholly unacceptable.” Meanwhile, it is estimated that another 1,900 people have been killed since the peace talks began.

Syrian government intransigence is a large part of the problem. Assad’s negotiators insist that the opposition to his regime is a terrorist insurgency and they hope the repetition of that term will win the world over to their position. With Moscow and Tehran in his corner, Assad can hold out indefinitely.

While the rebels have Western international opinion on their side, they are divided and their negotiators unskilled. Worse, they lack the weapons and material support to counter the government’s offensive against them. As a result, Damascus has every incentive for dragging out the talks, hoping to create facts on the ground as the rebels demonstrate their diplomatic incompetence.

While that may make tactical sense, reports that the Syrian government has decided to go slow on the turnover of its chemical weapons stockpiles to international authorities could change the negotiating dynamic. The United States has threatened to return to the U.N. Security Council to compel compliance with the previous agreement to turn over all the weapons, a deal that forestalled U.S. military action against those stockpiles and made the Syrian government a partner in the disarmament process. Refusing to follow through with disarmament would undermine those who have called the Assad regime a reliable party and offer new grounds for intervention by outside forces.

The rebels have said they are prepared to attend the next round of talks. The Syrian government has not refused to join, but it has not yet committed, said Brahimi. It is likely to attend, if only because the odds against progress are long and because of the opportunity to show up its adversaries.

The world cannot allow the Assad government to stall at the table while it steps up military action. The international community should let him know that its patience has limits.