The opening of the Geneva II Syria peace conference yesterday was a painful affair. Even before it convened, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found himself in the awkward position of having to withdraw an invitation to Iran. The public opening statements in Montreux showed no signs of compromise. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem insisted Bashar al Assad is a legitimately elected national leader who will not be displaced, claiming that Assad is fighting terrorists, not his own people. Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, underlined recently documented atrocities against thousands of Syrian citizens and called for the creation of a “transitional governing body with full executive powers,” as provided for in the June 2012 Geneva I Communique.’ Under this proposal, Bashar al Assad would have no role in Syria’s governance.
Such venting of positions is typical for the opening sessions of peace talks. No one expects the warring parties in this instance to come up with a political solution any time soon. Assad is doing too well on the battlefield to step down from power, and the opposition is too fragmented to agree to a compromise that it could deliver. The best that can be hoped for is the establishment of a forum for continuing dialogue and perhaps some modest first steps. We can also hope that the Russians and Americans are talking more seriously on the sidelines, as Secretary of State Kerry hinted in his press conference.
Modest first steps are possible in two areas: prisoner exchange and humanitarian access.
A prisoner exchange is the easier option. Prisoners lose their intelligence value rapidly after capture. They are burdensome and difficult to feed and house. Abusing them brings criticism from the international community. Many warring parties decide it is better to trade them, thereby getting some of their own people released and satisfying the often-strident demands of their supporters for their relatives and comrades to be freed.
Humanitarian access is harder. It requires either cease-fires, which enable both sides to rest, resupply and reorganize, or humanitarian corridors, which are difficult to protect. Neutral international observers could facilitate cease-fires and humanitarian corridors, but there are none in Syria. The international chemical weapons inspectors have operated entirely in areas under government control; it is close to unimaginable that international observers could be inserted into Syria on both sides of the confrontation lines anytime soon without a major international peacekeeping force. In any event, both cease-fires and humanitarian corridors often break down, only to be reestablished a few days or weeks later.
Getting beyond such modest measures to a political solution is going to be difficult as long as Iranian and Russian support for Assad remains solid. More assistance to the opposition will be required if the balance on the battlefield is to shift.
In the meanwhile, it is wise for the parties to keep talking. They may well find specific issues on which they can concur, if not cooperate. UN and Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has wisely chosen to conduct the non-public discussions in Geneva as proximity talks, which means he will meet separately with the parties and shuttle between them. That limits grandstanding and enables him to probe the parties out of the hearing of their enemies. He has set no limit on the current session—it seems it may last for a week or more. This is also unlikely to be the last session—warring parties often talk while they fight.