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Geneva talks died when Russia entered the war

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

The Geneva Peace Talks for Syria have been suspended. And by the looks of it, they will never open again. The representatives of the rebels are pulling out of the talks and are trying to use this as leverage to get the West re-engaged. At this point it is the best they can do.

However, it would be a mistake to think that it is the rebels that are scuppering the peace talks. The peace talks died the moment Russia entered the war last year – if indeed they were ever alive to begin with. With the recent ground developments, where the Assad forces – mostly on the back of the Russian war effort – are overturning the rebels on virtually every front and are getting ready to retake Aleppo. Everyone at this point knows that the notion of negotiations is dead.

Whatever happens, more massacres seem likely to follow. There is no reason at all to suppose that Assad will be magnanimous in victory. And let us not forget that he remains responsible for the most civilian deaths in this conflict by far.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In order to have successful negotiations, both parties need to have an incentive to get around the table and make a deal. Three years ago, before the rise of ISIS and when the Assad forces looked overwhelmed, it was the rebels and the West who saw no need for negotiations. Now it is Assad and the Russians. The rebels do not have the fire and manpower to win this, and the West no longer has the stomach to back them properly.

But Assad and the Russians seem bent on finishing this, and doing so quickly.

In this situation, the opposition knows it is doomed, unless they can find some way to get the West back on board. The attempt to draw attention to their grievances by withdrawing from the talks is feeble. Realistically, it was never going to work. But it probably is all they could have done.

Target: Assad or ISIS?

The West it seems has finally decided that ISIS is their top target and that it is willing to tolerate Assad if that is what they must do to finally destroy the group in the Levant. Or at the very least, they are not willing to risk direct fighting with Russia to topple Assad. So Assad will get to stay. And if Assad stays, the fighting will continue for as long as there are Sunni fighters left.

The situation is thus truly dire. One can even ask what will happen to these fighters once the rebel strongholds are overrun by government forces. Will they surrender? Will they flee? Maybe even to Europe, with the rest of the wave of refugees? Or will they join the ranks of ISIS?

Whatever happens, more massacres seem likely to follow. There is no reason at all to suppose that Assad will be magnanimous in victory. And let us not forget that he remains responsible for the most civilian deaths in this conflict by far. He will be keen to make sure that the spirit of the population in the reconquered areas is well and truly broken. But even though the humanitarian situation will likely go from catastrophic to even worse, the whole thing will very like be whitewashed.

Once Assad manages to get rid of the Free Syrian Army – his biggest obstacle – he will then, at long last, turn his guns on ISIS.

As he does so, a massive propaganda campaign will follow, especially in sympathetic foreign media (think Russia Today), where he will be presented as having fought ISIS all along and as the only actor in this conflict who can now protect all the minorities (so long as they are not Sunni), defeat ISIS and keep the country as a single, unified state.

The West will have to find creative ways to disguise their shame and embarrassment, so we can expect a lot of “this is all very regrettable, but at least this is better than ISIS” arguments from our leaders. And the rest of us will have to continue to read about body counts and be bombarded by news of the European migration crisis, presented, of course, as a separate issue to the conflict.

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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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