The Doomed Syrian Peace Bid

It's the shattered nation's best hope. And it's not likely to work.

A negotiated settlement to the civil war in Syria is the best option available. But it also happens to be the most difficult.

With a new humanitarian catastrophe in the Syrian border town of Qusayr, renewed allegations of chemical-weapons use in the conflict and disturbing signs that the Syrian civil war is now inflaming into a permanent sore for the entire region, the United States and Russia appear to have arrived at a somewhat similar conclusion: a peace conference is the only way to stop Syria’s violence from descending into all-out anarchy.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov should both be applauded for resurrecting a diplomatic option that has all too often been met with derision from both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the multiple groups that comprise the Syrian opposition movement. And while past attempts at mediation have failed—just ask former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and current Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi—there is always the slight possibility that the Kerry-Lavrov initiative will actually produce some something worthwhile. History is filled with examples of brutal civil wars that have slowly but surely resolved themselves; in most cases, a third-party mediator that is credible to all sides proved to be the difference.

But the question in the case of Syria is whether the belligerents are even willing—or in the opposition’s sense, capable—of sitting down together in the same room.

Common-sense diplomacy suggests that the best chance of striking a peace accord occurs when the conflict has reached a barbaric stalemate that all fighters realize cannot be shifted to their advantage. That environment looked prime for Syrians earlier this year, when the major front lines in the war were largely stagnant.

Today, however, the battlefield has changed markedly from just a few months ago. Syrian government troops, with vital assistance from Lebanese Hezbollah and pro-Assad paramilitary groups, are recapturing territory that was once seen as firmly in the opposition’s control.

At the moment, it looks like all of the players in Syria’s civil war—including the United States, the European Union and Russia—are simply going through the diplomatic motions to convince themselves that dialogue was tried before embracing a policy of overt intervention.

The European Union, for instance, talks a lot about solving the Syrian crisis through exhaustive negotiations, but then goes on to dissolve the weapons embargo on Syria—a decision that will allow individual EU member states, like Britain or France, to send military supplies to the rebels. Russia decries foreign military intervention while professing to take the high road by sponsoring an international peace conference, but in the next breath provides the Assad regime with the most advanced anti-missile system that they have to offer.

Meanwhile, it is not even clear whether the Syrian National Coalition—the main political grouping that represents the Syrian opposition internationally—wants to negotiate. The whole purpose of negotiations is to strike a compromise that everyone can live with. When considering the SNC’s unrealistic preconditions before talks can occur, it doesn’t look as if the opposition understands this reality.

The sincerity of Bashar al-Assad is an entirely different manner. The man has talked on both sides of his mouth throughout the twenty-six-month conflict, applauding ceasefire initiatives one day while launching dozens of air strikes on rebel positions the next. If Assad was unwilling to meet his international demands when his military position was weak and getting weaker, the chance that he would do so when his forces are on the offensive is slim to none. Bashar al-Assad clearly thinks he is winning, and with the complete support of Iran and Hezbollah, he appears convinced that his friends will not throw him overboard.

The negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition are a welcome development and are certainly preferable to the alternative (more air strikes, assassinations, extrajudicial killings, torture, massacres and terrorist attacks). Yet any realistic observer of the war only needs to take a quick look back to last year to find reasons for pessimism.

At best, the Geneva II discussions will lead to more discussions down the road. At worst, the Kerry-Lavrov initiative will fail on the first day, and the war will get far bloodier as outside powers begin to step up their own involvement. In the meantime, the violence will continue and millions more Syrians will be forced to embrace their new lives as poor, vulnerable and grief-stricken refugees.

Daniel R. DePetris is an independent analyst and a researcher at Wikistrat, Inc.