Syria: Kerry’s Chance for a Pivot to Humanitarian Access at Geneva

January 22, the latest in a long string of dates penciled-in for Geneva II, is six weeks from today. Hotel rooms are being booked in Montreux, Russian and Iranian ministers are meeting to plot their game plan, and the opposition Syrian National Council has agreed—under great duress and with several preconditions—to attend the peace talks.

Now that the Obama administration apparently has got the conference for which it lobbied so strenuously, what will they do with it? What should Secretary Kerry press for?

The top line priority for the United States is the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power. This is the right goal, but a nonstarter as a negotiating position at this point. Assad, currently enjoying military supremacy, dependable material support from Russia and Iran, and militia support from Iraq and Lebanon, will not likely negotiate himself out of power (especially as the US position at the table is no longer backed by the credible threat of force). The Syrian minister of information, laudable for his concision if little else, said as much last week. “If anyone thinks we are going to Geneva II to hand over the keys to Damascus, then he might as well not go.”

If Kerry confines himself to the stated agenda of complete political transition—barely more than a fantasy in the near- and mid-term—the conference presents numerous risks for the United States and its friends. Indeed, given Moscow’s unflinching support for the Assad regime, their eagerness to move forward with the talks should give us pause. Most likely, the Syrians and Russians will gladly use the event as part of a long, drawn-out process of empty talk and as a platform to demonstrate their ostensible good faith in participation. Assad can position himself as the indispensible steward of the peace process, just as he did the chemical weapons agreement. They hope to kick the can down the road, and at the same time count on the opposition showcasing themselves as a fractured, ineffectual, unserious lot—hardly a viable alternative. Kerry risks confirming the suspicion of his skeptics: that the United States is interested merely to be seen as trying to do something, without any real strategy for success.

But there is an alternative tack. Kerry should take the opportunity presented by Geneva II to pivot and make humanitarian access the emphasis of his diplomacy. Realistically, Kerry cannot altogether abandon the agreed agenda of the conference, and he should debate in good faith a complete political transition in Damascus. But when Plan A hits the inevitable impasse he should waste no time to direct all of his energies to Plan B: unfettered humanitarian access. The move makes good sense, first and foremost for the millions of Syrians facing dire hardship, but second, for the standing of the Syrian opposition, and third, for US diplomatic tactics vis-à-vis Assad and his allies:

  1. The humanitarian situation in Syria is a nightmare—by far the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world. Forty percent of Syria’s twenty-three million are in need of urgent assistance, and the international community should have no higher priority.
  2. At this point the exiled opposition is not able to deliver anything to the people inside Syria—and their reputation is assessed accordingly. Inside Syria, the Syrian National Council is referred to derisively as “The Hotel Opposition” for their main sphere of influence and never-ending parade of pronouncements from foreign hotels. When the commander of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo resigned in frustration last month he lashed out at the exiled opposition, voicing strongly a sentiment prevalent among Syrians. “You represent no one but yourselves. You have turned your backs on Syria and you have detached yourselves from it completely.” If the opposition refocuses its energies on delivering tangible support to the Syrian people, it could mark an important turning point for them to reestablish credibility. Rather than demand the downfall of Assad from the glitzy lobby of a Paris hotel, they could be seen on the world’s most visible international stage working to bring food and medical supplies into the country. As a matter of opposition cohesion, a long-running difficulty has been to settle on a common agenda. The diverse composition of the opposition often has meant that the only common denominator has been the removal of Assad. Humanitarian access would represent a similarly unifying platform, with the added benefit of being a more practical and achievable goal.
  3. It would also make good sense for US diplomatic tactics. Making the case for humanitarian access lends support to the more general US position, that Assad is a scourge on the nation who must be removed. Shifting the conversation to humanitarian access will put Assad and those who provide his international political cover in an increasingly awkward, defensive position. “Will you step down from power?” leaves far more room for prevarication than, “Will you allow food deliveries to starving families?” Moscow has given observers good reason to believe it is impervious to global opinion but, like all governments, has interest in its international image. What is the Sochi Winter Olympics if not a multi-billion dollar public relations exercise? And what is the Sochi Winter Olympics—its opening ceremony scheduled for two weeks after Geneva II—if not a golden opportunity for Kerry to ask embarrassing questions? What is the host of the largest festival of global goodwill doing fueling a civil war that has made millions homeless and claimed more than 126,000 lives?

The humanitarian assistance situation is complex, but the starting point is straightforward: Damascus must allow unfettered cross-line and cross-border access for all international humanitarian relief agencies.

If Kerry adopts this line, unfortunately his hand will strengthen through 2014, as the war shows no indication of slowing. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has spoken of state collapse in Syria and warned of a Somalia on the Mediterranean. Increasingly, humanitarian agencies, attempting to convey the magnitude of suffering in Syria, are speaking of a Rwanda on the Mediterranean. These alarms will only amplify in the coming months as thousands suffer due to harsh winter conditions, spreading illness, malnutrition, and population displacement. Honest observers can disagree about the merits of the convening peace talks at this moment, but all should agree that if talks do proceed Kerry should take the opportunity presented by Geneva II to place the humanitarian crisis center stage and create the conditions for international action.

Matthew Hall is an assistant director with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris on May 27, 2013. (Photo: US State Department)