Syria’s Geneva II is a win for Kerry with ‘zero chance’ for transition

The conference is bound to many political and regional limitations that prevent it from achieving its central mission for a transition in Syria

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The mere occurrence of the “Geneva II” conference taking place in Montreux, Switzerland is a significant accomplishment for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, says analysts and former U.S. officials while acknowledging that its objective of achieving a political transition in Syria is unrealistic and stands a “zero chance” at this point in the conflict.

“Just by getting the Syrian representatives (the regime and the opposition) to show up is a success for Kerry” says Henri Barkey, a Middle East scholar and Professor at Lehigh University. Barkey tells Al Arabiya News that after the many dramatic ups and downs preceding the conference, including a last minute announcement from the opposition that it is suspending its participation, Kerry managed through slick regional diplomacy to make it happen. Even for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to “send a senior delegation to sit across from the Coalition is an important consequence” given that “this is the same opposition that Assad branded as terrorists and foreign agents” says Barkey.

Zero chance for transition

But as far as the central goal of Geneva II is concerned, i.e. to kick start a political transition in Syria “the near-term prospects are zero. Absolutely zero,” says Fred Hof, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East. In a press briefing, Hof attributes his pessimism to “the Assad regime publicly rejecting the very premise of Geneva II: a political transition.” “Assad himself, a day or two ago, all but announced his reelection campaign for the presidency of Syria.”

Hof, who served as Special advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama on Syria met Assad on more than one occasion before the events of March 2011. He defines his calculation right now as “based on the military situation on the ground, and that any talk of him leaving power is nonsense.”

Another flaw in the Geneva II process explains Barkey is the exclusion of the major Syrian Kurdish parties. The expert who has written extensively on Turkey and Kurdish relations, sees in the no show for influential Kurds parties in Geneva II “a mistake on part of the opposition... that could have happened under pressure from Turkey.” He adds that “it doesn't help in trying to reach an inclusive solution at a point when the Kurds are fighting the same Al-Qaeda affiliated groups clashing with the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army.”

Possible ceasefire?

While nothing groundbreaking came out the first day of Geneva II, negotiations are still ongoing for a possible ceasefire between regime and opposition fighters in Aleppo. Barkey, a former State Department official, qualifies “getting some kind of a ceasefire and humanitarian incentives even if it is limited to specific areas” as a “successful outcome of the meeting.”

Reports in the Arab press have highlighted Russia’s efforts in mediating a prisoner exchange deal between the regime and the opposition.It is expected that direct talks between the representatives of the regime and the opposition will start tomorrow and last almost a week in Montreux on the confidence building measures.

Hof sees in Geneva II an opening for the Syrian National Coalition as well. “The Syrian national coalition can introduce itself, to Syrians and the world. And perhaps more importantly it can introduce the long-waited, long-called-for alternative to the Assad regime in Syria.” As far as the U.S. role is concerned, Hof sees it of high importance that Washington increases its support for the Syrian opposition. Sources tell Al-Arabiya News that the U.S. non-lethal assistance suspended for the Free Syrian Army last month “will be resumed in the coming weeks.”

U.S. leverage

Diplomatically speaking, Barkey highlights the U.S. discussions in Geneva II and meetings happening on the margin as an opportunity for Washington to apply more pressure on Russia and Iran to get a ceasefire. He adds that “while it is true that the U.S. influence has declined with inside actors in Syria, Washington is still a de facto major player in swaying Russia or getting an international mechanism in place.” Obama spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the eve of the meeting.

The U.S. rapprochement with Iran gives Washington extra leverage, Barkey explains. “It is a helpful channel to get Tehran to pressure Assad” and in a way “Geneva II is another test on how U.S. influence with Russia and Iran can shape Syria.”

Undoubtedly, Geneva II is bound to many political and regional limitations that prevent it from achieving its central mission for a transition in Syria. “The solution to the Syrian conflict will not come through a U.S.-Russian agreement” says Barkey adding that “it will require a regional agreement to reach a solution.” He concludes that such a moment will be realized when local actors and regional powers “recognize how grave the situation is and the dangerous path it has taken, for Syria and the region.”