In Geneva, the Swiss lake city synonymous with diplomacy, the hope is that negotiations on the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons will not only succeed, but blossom into meaningful talks about ending the war in which they were used, a war which has claimed over 100,000 lives.
That would require the participation of the combatants, of course, who so far have refused to enter peace negotiations. Besides the bitterness and the battlefield atrocities that deepen the enmity on both sides, the enemies cannot agree on the most basic element of a peace plan: Who would govern a post-ceasefire Syria? The rebels insist that it cannot be Syrian President Bashar Assad, and see their position backed by U.S. President Barack Obama and other supporters. And Assad refuses to step down, a position supported by his own patrons, including Russia.
The mutual intransigence undid the lofty ambitions of the first international meeting on the Syrian civil war, held in Geneva on June 30, 2012 and sponsored by the United Nations. Eight governments attended — most of the Security Council, plus four Middle Eastern nations — but neither Syria, nor the Free Syrian Army, the rebel assembly preferred by the West. The session ended as Security Council sessions had, with Russia and China thwarting language calling for Assad to step down, albeit this time at a lakeside setting.
Since then, diplomats have tried to coax the combatants toward an actual round of peace talks — dubbed “Geneva 2.” All the great powers favor it, as does Iran, though Washington opposed Iran’s participation, at least before Obama hinted that Tehran proved helpful in finessing the chemical weapons crisis. But it’s all been academic so far, because the rebels have refused to join. The hope now is that the diplomatic opening on chemical weapons that averted a threatened American air strike will create momentum for meaningful talks. Russian commentators are calling it Geneva 1.5.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the state of play on Friday, at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We both agreed to do that homework and meet again in New York around the time of the U.N. General Assembly in order to see if it is possible then to find a date for that conference, much of which will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here in the next days, hours, days on the subject of the chemical weapons,” Kerry said. Seated between the Great Powers was Lakhdar Brahimi, the respected but so far ineffectual UN envoy on Syria, who looked on as Lavrov lamented that the communique that came out of Geneva 1 “was basically abandoned.”
But the lurch to diplomacy had hopes up, especially in Moscow. “This proves that the current leadership of Syria is a viable negotiating partner, that everyone can work with them. Here is the example,” Sergei Ordzhonikidze, who served as Russia’s deputy foreign minister for Middle Eastern affairs in the 1990s, tells TIME. “Look, they’re giving up their chemical weapons, the very ones that protected their sovereignty against Israel. This shows a real willingness to talk, to change. Now the U.S. has to give diplomacy a chance. Destroying the chemical weapons is one factor, a very important one, but it does not take the political resolution off the table. Not at all. This is just the beginning. Then you have to stay at the table and resolve the conflict. If we are able to resolve the Syrian conflict together, this will give a huge impulse for the development of U.S.-Russian relations. And I think all sides would like to see that happen.”
— with reporting from Simon Shuster / Moscow