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Syria Deeply Asks: What’s the Best That Geneva Can Deliver?

On Jan. 22, representatives of global powers, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition will gather in Switzerland for a second round of peace talks, known as Geneva II.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

While analysts don’t expect breakthroughs in ending the war, there’s an opportunity for smaller gains, like advancing local cease-fires, humanitarian aid and assistance for refugees.

We asked experts to weigh in on the best outcomes Geneva II might deliver.

Rami Khouri, director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut:

The first thing is we have to decide what the aim is, and if the aim is to create a transitional government to lead post-Assad. If that’s the aim, talks aren’t going to go anywhere because Assad isn’t going to resign. The second thing is, who are the credible players, who is going be in Geneva [from both sides] and are they credible? Do they represent the interests of anyone other than themselves? The third thing is that there are initial steps that can be taken short of a new government system, like a cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and refugee repatriation. Can these short-term intermediate steps be taken at Geneva without getting bogged down by the issue of, Is Assad staying? Those are the three principal areas it will address.

The political issue of [creating] a transformative mechanism of a post-Assad government is going to need a more difficult political negotiation. I don’t think the present combination of opposition groups or government are capable of that right now.

The most feasible outcome, in my view? If they do manage to get to Geneva and start the meeting, they might be able to start local cease-fires and maybe work on those repatriation issues. That seems possible, and both sides would benefit, and that could spark a longer term cease-fire that would lead to a political discussion. But I don’t see Assad stepping down, or opposition groups bringing him down right now.

Steve Heydemann, vice president of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace:

I suspect that we will see little more than two things as a best possible outcome: one would be an agreement from both sides to reconvene at some point in some format or other, and the second would be some kind of agreement that deals with the humanitarian issue. That might be cease-fires around Aleppo, or increased access for aid; it’s difficult to know. We have to be aware of the risks associated with broadening the agenda away from the implementation of Geneva I protocol to include discussions of humanitarian relief. From an opposition perspective, the only meaningful justification for going to Geneva is to advance progress made at Geneva I protocol.

Advancing Geneva I protocol would mean that both the opposition and the regime delegations would need to commit themselves to the implementation of a transitional strategy. It’s the determination of the U.S. and other Friends of Syria governments that Geneva not be seen as a complete failure, and that’s why the agenda is being broadened to areas like humanitarian relief. But if we come out with progress only related to these issues, then the opposition has to deal with the public fallout of having sat down with the regime and come away with nothing, or having reached an agreement with the regime that ends up legitimizing the regime.

So this broadening of the Geneva agenda is very risky, and my feeling is that it will be difficult for the opposition to completely resist the U.S. and other governments and their desire to have the talks not [appear to] be a complete failure. But the opposition will be doing so at some risk to its own political legitimacy.

Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA:

If they manage to get the opposition to take part in the conference, because this is yet to be decided, I think the Americans and the Russians have to start putting their weight behind this. They are under pressure and they are expected to deliver something at the meeting, and we can see pressure on the opposition now as well from the U.S. and other Western countries to take part in Geneva.

Taking into consideration the situation on the ground today, the battles between the opposition and extremists have actually affected the Syrian regime’s Geneva agenda, which had been to portray the Syrian conflict as just a [simple] war with the government against terrorists.

In Geneva, I think there will be a unanimous decision to deal with the refugee issue. This has reached an unprecedented scale, and we can see how many organizations and governments are rallying together to deal with this issue. There will be some decision related to the establishment of some sort of limited safe zones on the borders where the U.N. can come in and build safe refugee camps.

There could be an initial agreement on some sort of a transition into a new government. But I don’t expect any details of such an agreement to be reached. We could see the creation of a framework agreement that will pave the way for future Geneva conferences. We could also start hearing some calls or seeing first steps towards establishing a peacekeeping force for Syria.

We’ll see real, strong pressure on both sides to make concessions and to observe cease-fires at least on some fronts. That’s really the maximum we could see at this stage.

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