That’s when “Geneva I” set out the framework for a political transition in Syria, ending President Bashar al Assad’s rule (you can read their final statement here). Since then, we’ve seen Syria sink into all-out civil war.
It took eighteen months for world powers to get back to the table, bringing along the regime and at least some of its opposition, to discuss how a transition could happen. It’s the first step in a long process – Russia says it process will unfold in several rounds – that may never achieve the stated objective of peaceful political change in Syria. The regime has shown little interest in negotiating its own end. The opposition sitting across from Assad has long been weak and fractured, and just barely agreed on Saturday to attend the talks at all. What they negotiate won’t hardly easy to implement; Syria’s powerful Islamist fighters, who shape conditions on the ground, have rejected the peace talks and their outcomes in advance. Syrian civilians, who’ve borne the greatest cost of the war, don’t feel represented at the table (least of all, Syria’s women, who’ve demanded a voice and released a joint statement ahead of the meeting).
And yet, Syrians are still glad to see Geneva go forward. They yearn for a process, even a flawed one, to inch the country forward. They tell us there’s a quiet, but palpable dividend on the ground – that with Geneva II in place, it empowers the grassroots peace initiatives that have begun sprouting around the country. Moreover, Geneva appears to be nudging the regime forward on issues like prisoner release and access to food in rebel areas – two key sticking points for its opponents on the ground.
Above all, Syrians see hope in Geneva II peace talks because there’s no hope anywhere else. The status quo is simply unbearable. Children are starving to death, while an estimated four million Syrians live under siege. Syrian violence and its effects continue to spill over into Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Al Qaida is regaining ground after being beaten back by rival rebel groups – practically all of them Islamist conservatives. In areas under Al Qaida’s control, civilians report cases of torture and more banal forms of day-to-day brutality. Al Qaida is tearing at what’s left in the fabric of Syrian life.
Half of Syria’s population is in urgent need of aid, while donor countries and private citizens show signs of fatigue – a fading will to give. This week’s donor conference in Kuwait fell $4 billion short of what the UN says it needs for Syrian aid (and that’s assuming that the pledges made will come through, which they often don’t).
Even if Geneva II brings no quick breakthroughs, it may still be a success through Syrian eyes. That’s because Syrian expectations of the world are dismally low. Having any process in place would be better than an unfettered slide, deeper into the warring abyss.