As Syria Peace Talks Start in Switzerland, 5 Things You Need to Know

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Gary Cameron / AP

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, left, leads his delegation during a plenary session in Montreux, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2014

An international conference convened to find a peaceful political solution to the ongoing war in Syria started with a furious showdown on Wednesday, as opposing sides unleashed their anger in opening remarks, an indication of what is to come. In front of an audience made up of representatives from some 35 nations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of brutal force against his own citizens had robbed him of legitimacy, and that he must go. Assad’s Foreign Minister responded that only Syrians, and not outsiders, had the right to ask Assad to step down. That rocky exchange is an apt demonstration of how much ground both sides will have to cover before anyone can give peace a chance. Here are the most important things to know as the talks, expected to last at least a week, take off.

1. What is the goal?
Officially the talks, dubbed Geneva II, were intended to implement a plan for a “mutually agreed upon” transitional government in Syria, called the Geneva Protocol, which was approved by the U.N. Security Council in 2012. But not everyone attending is on board. The Syrian government delegation, which has no desire to negotiate the departure of its President, says discussing a political transition away from Assad is out of the question.

(MORE: Facing Calls for Diplomacy, Many Syrian Rebels Reject Talks With Assad Regime)

2. Who is going?
This is the first time that representatives of the Syrian government and members of the opposition will sit across from each other since the uprising started nearly three years ago. The Syrian government has sent its top Foreign Ministry officials. The opposition is represented by a delegation from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), the Western-backed political-opposition umbrella group based in Turkey. An equally important question, of course, is: Who won’t be there? Less than half of SNC member groups voted to attend the conference; the rest abstained or boycotted the vote. The principal government-tolerated opposition group decided not to attend. The Islamic Front, a powerful alliance of rebel groups representing a large portion of fighters on the ground, also rejected the talks. So even if a breakthrough is reached in Switzerland, implementation on the ground in Syria is likely to be difficult.

3. What’s on the agenda?
The U.S. and other Western nations will want to keep the focus on political transition. The Syrians and their Russian backers, however, will attempt to divert the conversation to less-contentious ground. The focus, says the Syrian government delegation, should be “first and foremost eliminating terrorism.” A likely middle ground could start with confidence-building measures, such as prisoner exchanges, cease-fires or the opening of humanitarian-aid corridors. Western diplomats and members of the SNC delegation have warned that diverting attention away from political transition could undermine the talks entirely by precipitating the opposition’s premature withdrawal, but there will be international pressure to produce at least some tangible benefits to besieged Syrian civilians.

(MORE: Syria Could Turn Into Somalia if Peace Talks Fail, Says U.N.)

4. What’s the best possible outcome?
The bar is low. The fact that the two sides have both made it to Switzerland, despite serious reservations, is already a sign of progress. Even though the conference is scheduled to last a week, the process will likely be drawn out over months, or even years. A new round of meetings is scheduled for next month, and some Western diplomats involved with the proceedings are already talking about renting apartments in Geneva. Of this round of talks, says one, “I’m happy that that the opposing sides have managed to sit across from each other. The best-case scenario is that they are still sitting there by the time the week is over.”

5. How will it end?
Wednesday’s opening speeches in Montreux were just the beginning. On Friday, the Syrian delegations will move to Geneva to start talks in earnest. (A luxury-watch convention in Geneva means that the peace talks’ opening ceremonies had to be relocated to Montreux). Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, will mediate the closed-door sessions. Even though expectations are low, much is riding on hopes that somehow Brahimi can bridge the chasm that divides the two sides. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and president of the New America Foundation, who served as director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department, wrote in a recent opinion piece, “If Geneva II fails, Geneva III will not be about Syria alone. It will be about how to end a war raging across the entire Middle East.”

MORE: Syrian Peace Talks: The U.N. Extends, and Then Regrets, an Invitation to Iran