Will Geneva Happen? Should it?

Two years ago delegations representing the Syrian opposition and government met in Geneva, purportedly to negotiate peace. The master of ceremonies at the time, UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, had a bad feeling going in about the prospects for success—reservations that events would fully justify. He had been asked to convene the meeting in spite of the fact that the United States and Russia had fundamentally differing interpretations of the terms of reference for the talks—the June 2012 Final Communique of the Action Group for Syria. He had been asked to move forward despite the fact that the Assad regime had utterly rejected those terms of reference. What happened was predictable: the opposition delegation tried to negotiate the composition of a transitional governing authority; and the chief of the regime’s delegation (Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari) lectured his counterparts on the meaning and consequences of treason. It was a fiasco.

The 2014 Geneva talks proved to be the toxic icing on a half-baked diplomatic cake: a forlorn administration prayer for a conference room miracle; a piece of paper that would politically transition a regime being borne aloft militarily by Iran and Russia, a criminal enterprise that only months before had made a mockery of the American president’s chemical weapons red line. Secretary of State John Kerry, intent on pulling off a display of diplomatic alchemy, repeatedly assured one and all that Hezbollah’s effective military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime meant nothing. Indeed, military developments on the ground in Syria were, according to Kerry, simply irrelevant. What was critical to Kerry was the direction agreed on in Geneva in June 2012—the creation, on the basis of mutual consent, of a transitional governing body for Syria that would exercise full executive power. Bashar al-Assad’s role, according to Kerry, was to read the Geneva Final Communique and comply with its provisions.

What is it about conditions in early 2016 that make the prospect of talks right now less disastrous, less embarrassing, and less destructive than the abysmal experience of January 2014? The fact that Iran is now in the room? Fine, what exactly is Tehran bringing to the table in terms of the complete political transition called for in June 2012 that the United Nations endorsed? The fact that Russia is a co-convener of the “Vienna process” launched in late October 2015? Fine, but what are we to make of a Russian military intervention transparently aimed at eliminating the non-Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) armed opposition to its Syrian client—an aerial campaign that has slaughtered in excess of 1,000 Syrian civilians? And what of the Assad regime itself? Does John Kerry or UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura have from Bashar al-Assad a commitment to negotiate the creation of a fully empowered transitional governing authority from which he (Assad) may be excluded through the application of mutual consent?

Washington appears, to its credit, to be holding firm (at least publicly) against Russian attempts to stack the opposition delegation with Potemkin opponents of the Assad regime. If good faith played any role at all in animating Moscow’s behavior it would have welcomed the elevation of former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad al-Hijab as General Coordinator of the opposition’s approach to the Vienna process and prospective peace negotiations. Hijab’s election was not welcomed in all opposition quarters. He was (and perhaps still is) a Baathist who had been entrusted with the premiership by Assad in June 2012, and then defected in August of the same year, appalled by the regime’s horrific brutality. Hijab is by no means an enemy of Moscow, and he possesses the kind of practical knowledge and key contacts that could help a transitional governing body restore order and public services, preserving existing institutions of the Syrian government. But looking for good faith in Moscow is the equivalent of seeking regret and remorse in the ranks of the Assad regime.

Notwithstanding what happened two years ago, there are still those who see the possibility of magic breaking out spontaneously once warring parties are induced to sit together in the same room. Not everyone is so credulous. Washington claims that the ball is in de Mistura’s court to convene the opposition-regime meeting on January 25 in Geneva. De Mistura—perhaps recalling the painful experience of his predecessor—is not so eager. Quite understandably he wants the co-conveners—Moscow and Washington—to compose their differences over the opposition delegation. He would probably like to have assistance in establishing an agreed agenda as well. And he certainly wants to see more in the way of confidence-building measures in the humanitarian sphere; the sorts of things that Moscow views—quite understandably, given the nature of its military campaign—as irrelevant and time-wasting.

The one thing Washington must absolutely avoid this time around is pressuring the Syrian opposition to show up for something that is not properly prepared—counseling the broadly based coalition organized in Riyadh to sacrifice its credibility with Syrians inside Syria for the sake of meeting an arbitrary target date and manufacturing talking points for an administration that has been shooting policy blanks on Syria since 2011. If the administration wants this Vienna process to accomplish something for Syrians—if it wants the process for the sake of concrete results rather than a time-killing exercising stretching to January 20, 2017—then it will do the proper diplomatic due diligence before exposing the Syrian opposition delegation to proceedings that will make it the object of contempt for Syrians being bombed, starved, tortured, and terrorized by a regime that is fully and enthusiastically encouraged in these depredations by Moscow and Tehran.

The object of American diplomacy at this point should not—unless the key enablers for success are about to fall in place—be aimed at forcing the Syrian opposition to meet for the sake of a meeting. Has the Assad regime fully accepted the Geneva 2012 terms of reference? If not, are Russia and Iran pressuring it to do so? Is there an agreed agenda focused on the central Geneva deliverable: a transitional governing body created on the basis of mutual consent and endowed with full executive power? Will Moscow abandon its effort to stack the opposition delegation with friends of Bashar al-Assad? If the basic terms of reference are agreed and in-place, then it is time for a meeting. If not, then there is some “great power” homework that remains to be done. Geneva 2014 should not be forgotten. It remains the model of how not to do it.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: (Photo: State Department photo/ Public Domain. Secretary Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, UN Special Envoy Brahimi Address Press U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, United National Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discuss efforts to reach a political settlement in the Syrian civil war during a news conference at UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 13, 2013.)