The Geneva II talks, the second round of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to Syria’s ongoing civil war, ended this past weekend. To the surprise of absolutely no one, they failed to bring an end to Syria's ongoing civil war.
The war, which is nearing its three-year anniversary, has claimed more than 140,000 lives, displaced one in five Syrians, and destabilized the region. There is no end in sight. Geneva II, which involved participants and observers from more than 40 countries and international groups, took place in Montreux, Switzerland, a picturesque mountain town on the shores of Lake Geneva. They lasted three-and-a-half weeks. During that time, some 5,800 Syrians were killed in the fighting.
The conflict has proved so very intractable and bitter in part because the participants and onlookers can't even agree on the fundamentals of the conflict, let alone discuss them. In geostrategic terms, this is a proxy war flare-up in the centuries-long power struggle between two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, along with their prime sponsor, the United States, support the insurgency. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is backed by Iran (whose representatives were excluded from Geneva II) and its patron, Russia.
But the apparent simplicity of the geostrategic arrangement doesn’t mean the situation on the ground is simple. Some observers have classed the insurgents into two main camps: Islamist terror groups and the secular insurgency. The reality, however, is much more complicated. There are as many as 1,000 different rebel groups fighting in Syria against the regime — and against each other. Arms have been flowing into the country from all over the world; a major infusion of Croatian arms purchased with Saudi money went to rebel groups last year, and Russian shipments to government forces are ongoing. Further, some analysts estimate that volunteers from as many as 80 countries have traveled to Syria to fight. This number includes fighters from countries such as Britain, France, and the United States, whose intelligence community has raised significant concerns that those fighters will return to their home countries as violent extremists.
The Syrian government and its supporters claim that they are fighting against violent terrorist extremists, and there is no question that there are a large number of Islamist groups and al Qaeda affiliates currently opposing the government. On the other hand, opposition groups frame this as a fight against the brutal, authoritarian Assad regime. Long before the current round of violence erupted, Syria was widely known to be a dictatorship with an extensive record of human rights abuses.
A tank battle in Aleppo, Syria
The negotiations thus far haven’t been completely without merit. During the first round, the Syrian regime agreed with the rebels on the importance of setting up a transitional government — in other words, both sides agreed that good things are good. Nevertheless, the regime and the rebels still violently disagree about whether that means Assad will remain in power in the new government, or whether he will step down.
In the second round of talks, negotiators for the regime and rebels agreed that they both wanted to fight terrorism — in other words, both sides agreed that bad things are bad. They just don’t have any common frame of reference about what that means and, more practically, whom they should be shooting at.
The end of Geneva II has resulted in some predictable hand-wringing, recriminations, and excuses for various parties to do what they have wanted to do all along. The US and Russia have criticized each other for being hypocritical and not doing enough to push a diplomatic solution. The US isn’t buying the “fight against terrorism” angle pushed by the Syrian regime, with officials criticizing the regime for taking it easy on al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Saudi government has apparently decided that it needs to step up its support for anti-government forces and will start supplying them with Chinese weapons, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS) with which to shoot down Syrian planes and helicopters.
The US has had many long-standing concerns about MANPADS falling into the hands of terrorist groups. The Saudi decision to supply them to rebels should therefore provide an interesting talking point for President Obama’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia in March. During that visit, Saudi officials are expected to try to convince the President that the US should step up its support for the Syrian rebels.
Diplomats are claiming that a third round of talks — Geneva III — will eventually be held, although no date has been set. Meanwhile, it's possible that a combination of locally brokered truces (including those resulting from UN-led humanitarian efforts), temporary cease-fire agreements between rebel and government forces (even when people pitch a fit), and sheer fatigue (or at least the end of the five-star jihad) may help to finally wind this war down — assuming, of course, that the people fighting this war care more about ending the killing than they do about vengeance.
A demonstration in Homs, protesting against reconciliation with the Syrian government.