U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi wrapped up the first round of the “Geneva II” negotiations last Friday reporting little progress. No ceasefire was agreed, and talks on a transitional government never began. The next round is scheduled for February 10, but its prospects are dim. The opposing sides predictably blame each other for the stalemate, but in any event the talks were doomed to fail.
The first reason is John Kerry’s insistence—reasserted on the very first day of the meeting in Montreux, January 22—that Syria’s president can have no place in any future transition government. “We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent,” Kerry said. “That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government.”
Kerry’s position is absurd. No regime in history has negotiated its own demise, and the government of Syria is no exception. Any transition government “born by mutual consent” has to reflect the balance of forces on the ground. Therefore it will necessarily include Bashar, whose army has regained the initiative in the ongoing civil war. His forces control 13 out of 14 provincial capitals in the country and are steadily advancing in the rebel-held districts of Aleppo and Homs. In any event it is not up to the U.S. Secretary of State to decide who can or cannot be in charge in a faraway foreign land. Let it be recalled that his predecessor declared over two years ago that Assad’s regime was “dead man walking.”
It is possible that Kerry was serious when he declared that “there is no way, no way possible in the imagination, that the man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern.” If so, then the U.S. policy will favor a drastic reversal of military fortunes on the ground—which may take years of hard fighting—rather than a negotiated settlement. This possibility is apparently supported by the secret Congressional approval of arms deliveries to “moderate” Syrian rebel factions. The definition of “moderate” has been stretched in Washington to the point where it includes hard-core jihadists, provided they are not affiliated to al-Qaeda. As if the Afghan blowback had never happened…
The second reason “Geneva II” had to fail is the lack of legitimacy of the rebel side. The opposition delegation, which was appointed by the self-styled “National Coalition,” was drawn from a narrow base of émigrés with minimal military clout. The men who came to Geneva have no authority over the large and powerful base of Islamist rebels. In December 2012 the anti-Assad group of foreign powers calling itself the “Friends of Syria” simply declared the Coalition to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but it is nothing of the kind. The National Coalition’s minimal sway over fighters inside Syria means that its negotiators cannot guarantee that any deal reached in Switzerland would be implemented. The al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are the most powerful anti-Assad groups, and their leaders would not have come to Geneva even if they had been invited. As the first round of talks ended on January 31, Russia insisted that the Syrian opposition delegation should be made more representative by including Bashar’s political opponents who have not resorted to arms. The Coalition is certain to reject this demand, thus further undermining its own credibility.
The third reason for the failure Geneva II is Iran’s exclusion from the talks. As a regional power deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, Iran should have been included—especially since Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan—all of them staunchly anti-Assad—were represented, as well as a host of other countries. In fact Iran was belatedly invited to the conference by the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and then disinvited under American pressure. This was yet another sign that the Department of State is not interested in a negotiated settlement. As an Iranian analyst has noted, “the U.S. knows very well that if ever the day comes that Bashar al-Assad needs to go quietly, Iran is the only country capable of achieving that.” After the rebuff, Iran can now be expected to make sure it secures an even stronger hand in Syria—which will additionally strengthen Assad’s position.
John Kerry took charge of the State Department announcing his intention to change Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to hold on to power. A year later it is evident that Washington’s own calculations, rather than Assad’s, need to change. Syria’s president is stronger today than at any time since early 2012. The rebels are deeply divided, and hard-line jihadists—whether affiliated to al-Qaeda or not—are dominant among them. As an Aljazeera commentator noted on the first day of Geneva II, the fragmentation and radicalization of rebel fighting forces has been the opposition’s greatest weakness: “Had a unified political-military command emerged among the rebels in the first year of the uprising, at the height of optimism over the Arab Spring, the United States and Europeans might well have been persuaded to give direct military backing to the uprising. Today, such hopes have been dashed.” Infighting among rival rebel militias claimed over a thousand lives in January alone.
Six weeks ago, prompted by ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden’s blunt admission that Assad’s victory would be the least bad outcome in Syria, we argued in this column that Syria no longer exists as a single political entity and that its de facto partition should be condoned in preference to a zero-sum game in which neither side can hope to prevail. The U.S. policy should support this outcome, albeit behind a single-state façade. It is less risky for U.S. interests than arming some fictitious “moderate” rebels and insisting on preordained outcomes which Washington has neither the will nor the money to enforce.