The Geneva II conference on Syria ended on Saturday in a predictable standoff between President Bashar al Assad’s regime and a section of the opposition National Council for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), but it was remarkable that the talks, held indirectly with United Nations and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi moving between the two sides, took place at all. The conflict will enter its fourth year on March 15; it has so far killed 136,000 people and displaced over two million amid atrocities by all involved. Even a short truce a few days ago for the residents of the besieged city of Homs to leave or acquire food was negotiated not in Geneva but by the Homs Governor, Talal al Barazi, and the UN’s resident coordinator, Yacoub El Hillo. Meanwhile, positions at Geneva II – where the parties were to start implementing the plan reached at Geneva I on June 30, 2012 – remain bitterly entrenched. Damascus brands the opposition terrorists and insists that Mr. Assad will not step down; the SNC, for its part, only attended under pressure from its Western and West Asian allies and after a series of internal disagreements. Of its 119 members, only 75 attended the vote in Istanbul, voting 58-14 to go to Geneva II; the representatives of Syria’s 10 per cent Kurdish minority also boycotted the Swiss talks. Any chance of wider participation had ended on January 16, when the officially sanctioned opposition National Coordination Committee (NCC) said it would not attend.

Even worse complications obtain. The Syrian situation has been called a proxy war involving the West, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the opposition side, and Russia and Iran plus the Hezbollah on the regime’s side, but certain opposition leaders resent being used thus, and government officials speak of being treated like vassals by Iran, Russia, and the Hezbollah. In addition, the al Qaeda-linked faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams (ISIS), holds the provincial capital of Rakka in central Syria, and serves a purpose both for Damascus, which tells the West that if the government fell al Qaeda would win, and for the SNC, which submerges its internal differences to fight ISIS. Furthermore, Iran, which could well have some leverage on Mr. Assad, had no option but to pull out of Geneva II when Washington stated the precondition that Mr. Assad step down in any transition process. The one glimmer of hope in all this is that since October 2013, opposition and government members have been meeting privately at the Château de Bossey in Switzerland. As the United States and Russia will almost certainly back any agreement they reach, it is imperative that those involved continue talking and that all others stay away.


This article has been corrected for an error

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