Daily reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s tactical military advances in Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs, and elsewhere seem not to dampen the appetite of President Barack Obama’s administration for the near-term convening of a “Geneva 2” conference, whose stated purpose would be to negotiate—on the basis of mutual consent—the peopling of a transitional governing body (TGB) replacing the regime and exercising full executive power in Syria. The administration’s goal is ambitious: the voluntary, negotiated unseating of a regime which, by all accounts, is winning battles on the ground.
It would seem counterintuitive to many that a political outcome would contradict related military facts. Indeed, when John Kerry became secretary of state he warned that Bashar al-Assad’s calculation would have to be changed for the Syrian maestro of war crimes and crimes against humanity to partake in his own complete, negotiated political transition. Kerry’s embrace of the nationalist Supreme Military Council early in 2013 and his eloquent calls for military strikes in the wake of the August 21, 2013 chemical atrocity convinced many that he saw a relationship between combat results on the ground and political outcomes in diplomatic salons; that he understood regime advances militarily would not dispose it to negotiate the terms of its own departure.
Now, however, it seems clear that what is sought is the achievement of a political objective—the complete replacement of the Assad regime—in spite of a military situation increasingly favorable to the regime. Kerry himself has asserted that the terms of the Geneva Final Communiqué render irrelevant the question of who is winning and who is losing militarily, a stand bolstered by his belief that there is, after all, no military solution to Syria’s travails.
With private Gulf money funding al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists in eastern Syria while Russia and Iran sustain the regime in the west, the Obama administration has prepared its leverage-free diplomatic tour de force by declining to involve itself in any significant way in the arming, equipping, and training of increasingly marginalized Syrian nationalists loosely connected to the Supreme Military Council. President Obama has further set the stage for a forthcoming political miracle by trading the credible threat of American military force for a chemical weapons agreement that makes Assad, also known as he who should step aside, a party to a United Nations-endorsed arms control undertaking. Not unlike Harry Houdini, the administration has gone to great lengths to stack the odds against it. Will it, like Houdini, escape from the sealed, submerged barrel into which it has been locked, bound by chains?
The administration seems to think that Russia is the hidden key that permits the great escape and overturns all of what human history seems to suggest about the relationship between military facts and political results. Moscow seems to be encouraging this belief, as it facilitated a discussion in Geneva between US Ambassador Robert Ford and Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, a Russian favorite.
Yet Jamil’s agenda seemed to be one of seeking his inclusion in the opposition delegation at Geneva, a delegation Russia hopes to pack with regime sympathizers and operatives. Jamil was subsequently fired by the regime for the stated reason of having not being authorized to take the meeting with Ford: a reason American officials believe is genuine. Although it is possible that the regime and Moscow are not always and entirely on the same page tactically, continued arms support from Russia to the regime suggests they are very much in the same place strategically in terms of regime survival. If they are, then the Obama administration’s political transition hopes for Geneva—conference and process alike—would seem to be groundless. Even if Moscow were to realize at long last the toxic connection between Assad’s political survival and the parallel growth of al-Qaeda and like-minded elements, it is far from clear that it possesses the requisite leverage to nudge him toward the exit, much less hook him off the stage.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has reacted to all of this as positively as it could under strange circumstances. It has articulated conditional readiness to attend a Geneva 2 conference in terms echoing the London 11 communiqué of October 22, 2013. Instead of demanding that the Assad regime step down and leave Syria before a conference is convened, it has conditioned its participation along the following lines: the conference must center on the creation of the TGB, which would exercise full executive power; humanitarian access and prisoner releases must occur prior to the conference; and the Assad regime should commit itself to resolutions and principles already adopted by the international community.
There are unconfirmed reports that Geneva 2 may be scheduled for December 12. If the United States and Russia are serious about this prospective meeting actually setting in motion an eventual political compromise, they must concentrate now on mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria brought about mainly by regime practices long-since identified as criminal in multiple reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council. If Moscow (and Tehran, for that matter) cannot oblige the regime to stop shelling populated areas and to release prisoners, how will it oblige Assad to negotiate in good faith his own political transition? How can productive talks take place when one party is directing the bulk of its military effort against the other party’s civilian base?
What the people of Syria want right now is relief from indiscriminate shelling, forced displacement, relentless terror, and mass incarceration. The millions who are internally displaced and subsisting abroad want to return home and rebuild their lives. If Moscow and Tehran (perhaps with Beijing weighing-in) cannot or will not deliver their client pre-Geneva on humanitarian basics, what exactly would be the point of a peace conference? To discuss the terms and conditions for the cessation of war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Geneva 2 should happen only if the Assad regime gives blanket authorization for United Nations humanitarian relief agencies to go anywhere they wish in Syria, only if significant numbers of political prisoners are released, and only if the shelling of civilian areas by regime forces ceases. Creating complete political transition with the regime believing it is winning will be on the order of a miracle, even if Geneva 2 paves the way for versions 3, 4, and 5. Protecting vulnerable civilians will also be difficult. Yet it may not require a miracle to achieve.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.