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Low Hopes, High Stakes For Syria Peace Conference In Geneva

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a press conference in Moscow on Friday.
Vasily Mximov
AFP/Getty Images
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a press conference in Moscow on Friday.

Can a meeting in Switzerland, known as Geneva-2, solve the crisis in Syria?

The expectations are low. The warring parties are reluctant. Some of the most important players, including powerful armed rebel groups, are not on the invitation list.

The superpower hosts, the U.S. and Russia, fully back the peace conference, set for Wednesday. They hope to kick-start a political process and end the armed conflict that has ravaged Syria and destabilized the region.

More than 40 countries have been invited, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. But the key delegations are the one representing President Bashar Assad's government and the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed, exiled political opposition group based in Istanbul.

The U.N, U.S. and Russia have spent enormous diplomatic capital just to get participants to the table, but can those parties produce a meaningful outcome?

Creating A 'Diplomatic Track'

"They expect some sort of a process to start, or at least they are hoping," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. "There is a fair amount of gloom that they can achieve anything." The lowest common goal, he says, is "a hope and a prayer that the parties show up to continue the discussions in another set of conferences and meetings."

Since the revolt in Syria began, the deep conviction of the Assad regime was to crush the uprising. For the opposition, regime change was the goal. Now, both sides must recalculate. At least, that is the hope.

"Now, they have to create a diplomatic track and conduct negotiations under fire," says Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi. Many Syrians hope for the emergence of "real politics" for the first time in Syria's recent history.

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. "We should think of this as a kind of 'getting to know you,' as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here," Joshi says, "what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example."

Assad Regime's Bet

Prodded by Russia, the Assad regime was the first to sign up for the negotiations, naming a delegation for a conference which is supposed to create a transitional government in Damascus.

Syria's foreign minister even proposed a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo, and promised to facilitate deliveries of humanitarian aid to rebel-held neighborhoods around the capital. Syrian government troops have besieged these areas for months, withholding food and medicine to rebels and civilians alike in a "starve to submission" policy that's been widely condemned by international aid organizations.

The regime's offer was hailed in Moscow as a sign that a political solution was possible after all, but regional analysts interpreted the proposal as a ploy to please the Russians and to cling to power. At the same time, the offer took advantage of the infighting among the political opposition and the turmoil in northern Syria as rebels confront an al-Qaida-linked group.

"It's a question of projecting their bargaining position, of showing they have a good hand," says Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, describing the regime strategy. This opening offer demonstrates that Assad holds the key to urgent issues and the message is clear. "If you want to be able to enforce a peace, it's the regime you have to go through," Joshi says.

But for the Assad regime, negotiations also pose a threat. "It's a question of survival," says one Syrian commentator, who did not want to be named for fear of endangering his family in Syria. "They can't signal any sign of compromise. They will be in trouble with their base, who will see it as a sign of panic."

A year ago, many Western officials and commentators were predicting the impending fall of Assad and an end to the fighting. Almost no one thinks that way now. Damascus is widely seen as having the upper hand on both the military and political fronts. Regime forces have reversed rebel gains around the capital and in the contested city of Aleppo with the help of additional ground troops from militias crossing from Lebanon and Iraq.

Assad got a political boost when he became a willing partner to a U.S.-Russia brokered deal to remove his chemical arsenal. The change in perception weighs heavily on opposition leaders who are wary of being drawn into a long process that could result in Assad staying in office.

A Splintered Opposition

The opposition's Western backers have little leverage to force Assad from power, but they did push the opposition to abandon its bottom line (that Assad must go before the negotiations begin). Now the regime's political opponents will have to get something worth having for showing up in Switzerland or risk losing any relevance at all.

Syria's political opposition is a fractious bunch. They waited until the last minute to vote on attending the Swiss talks with debates so heated the organization is near collapse. Under intense pressure from Western governments, which threatened to withdraw support, they were finally forced to the negotiating table because all else failed.

But the delegation has little legitimacy on the ground where armed rebel groups rule. If a deal were to be struck at the Switzerland conference, it's hard to see how the political opposition could implement it inside Syria. Many activists and rebel groups inside Syria remain opposed to the peace conference and say the coalition doesn't represent them.

Revolution Or Terrorism?

The long-anticipated meeting in Switzerland opens with competing narratives about the basic details that sparked the Syrian conflict. The opposition insists this is a revolution, a popular uprising against a tyrannical regime.

"For the Russians and the regime," says Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, "this is about fighting terrorism, about dispelling the notion that Assad has to leave." Moscow appears to be backing Syria's insistence that talks should focus on combating terrorism, which Assad claims is back by the West and Gulf Arab states.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. "Nobody is going to be fooled" by Assad's attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, "when he, himself, has been funding those extremists."

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

"All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS," says a Western diplomat. "There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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