The Geneva 2 conference on Syria began ominously on Wednesday, when representatives of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian opposition refused to meet each other and resorted to angry speeches, which threatened to forestall the formal talks scheduled to begin on Friday. The failure to get them face-to-face was compounded by the government delegation threatening to pull out if “serious” discussions didn’t begin by Saturday. With the opposition calling for Assad’s removal as the starting point of peace negotiations and the regime focused on fighting what it calls “terrorism”, the divisions remain too entrenched for a consideration of the 2012 Geneva 1 communiqué that called for a transitional government.
In realistic terms, Geneva 2 has been narrowed to a smaller, concrete agenda, such as local ceasefires and safe passage for aid convoys. The larger political questions of the civil war, which has killed 1,00,000 people and rendered 9.5 million refugees, will have to wait. Three top diplomats, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, couldn’t convince the warring sides about the need to discard the dispute over who started the bloodshed and to look, instead, at ways to end the violence. Their prime concern now is to ensure that neither side walks out.
The governments that Kerry and Lavrov represent are both responsible for letting down Syrians. Russia staunchly stood by its ally, Assad, vetoing UN Security Council resolutions, even as his troops went about their massacres. The Obama administration first refused a timely intervention that could have saved lives and prevented the extremist hijack of opposition forces. It threatened action too late — and the deal on Assad’s chemical weapons was brokered by Moscow, which took the credit. Even now, the divide extends to the big powers. Washington supports the opposition’s demand for Assad’s removal, while Moscow insists he alone can run the country. Geneva 2 will be a success if just the smaller, pragmatic agenda can be secured.