For a country that produces over 450 kinds of Swiss cheese, it seems apropos to host a conference that has as many holes as its namesake product. The Geneva II international conference promises, in its current form, little to no impact on the conflict inside Syria. Half of those invited have no major say on battlefield happenings, while the other half gives no relevance to the agenda or proposals.
The conference, expected to be held on Nov. 23, is proving early on to be falling short on substance. In theory, it presents a good opportunity for the United States and Russia to show a shared vision on how to end the conflict, and build on the momentum of the Chemical Weapons agreement achieved last month. For Syria, however, the conference, in its proposed framework and regarding the level of enforcement, promises no credible path towards ending the two-and-half-year-old conflict.
There is no question that a political exit strategy backed by the international community is essential for Syria, but another signed document that lacks an enforcement mechanism will not bring the country closer towards that goal. With both the regime and the opposition growing more defiant and radicalized, and with regional tension escalating around the conflict and vis a vis Russia and the U.S., the Geneva II conference can only do little to drive Syria out of the abyss or push its battling factions to compromise.
Assad has many reasons to be more defiant today than he was in 2012. The resilience of his regime and superiority of his military force, for exampleJoyce Karam
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brushed off the London communiqué this Tuesday. It had called for a Transitional Governing Body where he and his “close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.” Instead, Assad held his ground, seeing “no obstacles” to nominating himself again next summer for president. Thus, he seized a chance to challenge the international community and to renew his family dynasty who came to power in 1971. Even U.N. Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi seems to have given up on Assad and negotiating with the regime. Brahimi has not visited Damascus since December 2012, when he was snubbed by Assad after advising him to transition authority to a new government. Brahimi’s negotiating efforts have been focused regionally and around U.S.-Russia common ground.
Assad has many reasons to be more defiant today than he was in 2012. The resilience of his regime and superiority of his military force, the backing of Russia and Iran, the economic and military assistance coming to his government through Iraq and Lebanon, and the lack of credible military threat from the U.S. or the United Nations Security Council, have emboldened the regime. The Chemical Weapons agreement, that averted a military strike in September, has softened the isolation of the regime which is seen crucial to implementing the agreement.
The Syrian opposition does not seem inclined towards negotiating a major compromise either. The rebels are better armed than they were in 2012, and the political opposition cannot even agree if it wants to attend Geneva II. Divisions and infighting continue within the National Syrian Coalition, with regional countries weighing their influence, and no clear political strategy or tools on how to crack the Assad power structure.
On the military side, more clashes have been taking place between moderate and extremists rebels. The grip of the Free Syrian Army, which is invited to Geneva II, has been loosening in southern Syria over the last two months with as many as 20 groups breaking with its command. Many of the influential groups including the al-Nusra Front and Liwaa Islam will not be present at Geneva II, and they will undoubtedly continue with their mission the day after.
A Geneva sequel?
Judging by Geneva I, it is hard to see how any of the stated goals of Geneva II will be accomplished. Geneva I called for cessation of violence and the release of prisoners in 2012 but the violence and kidnappings only intensified afterwards. Assad used chemical weapons and the radical opposition has kidnapped activists who started the uprising.
The conference could turn out to be an opportunity to save face for both the United States and Russia, who have talked plenty about forming a consensus and ending the bloodshed in Syria but have not been able to achieve it. For the actual war, however, the meeting brings no end in sight for Syria’s raging fire. Geneva II brings no prospect of preventing the country from becoming as fragmented as a slice of Swiss cheese itself.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam