When Syrian President Bashar Assad met with the U.N.–Arab League envoy on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of peace talks that might bring an end to a civil war that has killed more than 115,000 Syrians, he made one thing clear. As long as foreign backers supported armed members of the opposition, Assad told former Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus, his regime would not play a part. Never mind that his own forces are equipped with Russian weaponry and funded and assisted in part by Iranian cash; military advisers from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Hizballah militants. Assad’s new red line all but guarantees that the proposed talks will not take place at the end of November as originally planned. In fact, if conditions on the ground in Syria do not change substantially in the coming weeks and months, and international pressure cannot force the warring parties to the table, it’s unlikely they will happen at all, say diplomats, analysts and government officials who closely follow the Syrian crisis.
If the talks do not take place, the risk is that Syria spirals out of control, sucking an already volatile region down with it. Brahimi, a veteran peace negotiator, said in an interview on Monday that the Syrian situation had the potential to be more dramatic, devastating and difficult than Afghanistan, Iraq and even the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war, all of which he knows firsthand. “The real danger that threatens this country is a kind of ‘Somalization,’” he said, referring to the war-torn and warlord-riven nation in the Horn of Africa that has had no real central government for the past two decades. “More sustained and more profound than what we have seen even in Somalia.”
It’s a grim prognosis. Can it be avoided? For months, the U.S., the U.N. and Russia have struggled to bring the warring parties together to discuss a political solution, a follow-up to an earlier conference held in Geneva in June 2012 that resulted in the recognition, by both sides, that continued war was not a solution. It’s about the only thing they do agree upon. In the lead-up to the proposed talks, dubbed Geneva II, the opposition has fractured over the question of whether or not Assad would even be able to take part in the discussions, with one of the strongest opposition parties baldly stating that simply to attend a meeting with Assad present would amount to “treason.” For his part, Assad says he refuses to negotiate with “terrorists.” U.S., Russian and U.N. envoys plan to meet on Nov. 5 to discuss the next step, and whether or not Geneva II can even happen.
Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., believes that with enough pressure the opposing parties can be driven to the table. “The Syrians at this point appear unable or unwilling to negotiate with each other or even agree on a way forward among themselves, so any hope for Geneva will have to come from the outside in — a U.S.-Russian road map that the Iranians, the Gulf and the West can agree upon.” He cites the chemical-weapons accord, in which Assad, with Russian encouragement, agreed to give up his arsenal in September to avert American air strikes, as a positive example of how the regime can be forced to make concessions. Similarly the opposition parties depend on the West and the Gulf countries for funding and supplies.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, is not so sanguine. He sees little evidence that the opposing sides will ever be able to overcome their differences, and he is not even sure that such a meeting would produce effective results. “We have this binary focus on the regime and the opposition, but I would wager that those two combined don’t represent the majority of Syrians today.” A foreign-imposed peace agreement is unlikely to bring lasting resolution, he says. “The only hope for stability in Syria is to bring the true representatives of the people into dialogue — the economic elites, tribal leaders and religious elements. Instead you have a regime which is not going to give up one inch of political power and an opposition that has no credibility on the ground.”
But getting what Shaikh calls the fence-sitters to speak up when they are under threat from both the regime and extremists within the opposition is far more difficult than bringing those who have less to loose to the table. Geneva II may be better than nothing, but if that too collapses, frustrating international efforts and alienating supporters, Syria may find itself even worse off.