Syrian peace talks are finally under way in Switzerland, after no shortage of brinkmanship and the withdrawal of a last-minute invitation to Iran. The talks are off to an acrimonious start, and if they’re to have any chance of succeeding, negotiators would be wise to focus on realistic goals. An end to the fighting or agreement on a transitional government is too much to ask for. Better for diplomats to work out ways to bring humanitarian aid to the millions displaced by the civil war.
The difficulty with the so-called Geneva II process is that the Syrian government and its foes have diametrically opposed assumptions about its purpose. For the rebels and their U.S. backers, it’s about shaping a transitional government for Syria that excludes President Bashar al-Assad. For the regime and its Russian supporters, Geneva II is about creating international legitimacy for Assad to remain in power.
The release of a shocking and meticulously authenticated report on the systemic torture, starvation, and execution of 11,000 people in Assad’s prisons serves as a reminder that the Syrian president should be on trial for war crimes. Even so, the focus on getting the protagonists to start negotiating an unachievable political settlement likely won’t end or ameliorate Syria’s nightmare.
The process is backward, and the flip-flop over Iran is a good example of why. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s rationale for inviting Iran made perfect sense: For the talks to make progress, the most important actors in the conflict need a seat at the table—and that means at a minimum Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S., and, yes, Iran. Of course, Iran doesn’t accept the goal of a political transition and has troops on the ground to stop that from happening, so it’s understandable that the opposition Syrian National Coalition wanted to exclude Iranian diplomats. Yet what if the talks shifted from a political settlement to removing Hezbollah troops (which receive Iranian support) from Syria?
The talks should focus on ensuring that humanitarian aid can reach civilians, including some who’ve been deliberately cut off and starved by the regime’s forces and the country’s estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people. Sometimes that will mean persuading the regime’s forces to let aid through to areas under siege. Other times it will require local cease-fire agreements.
The most likely way to produce meaningful cease-fires would be for the war’s regional sponsors to pressure their proxies into honoring deals on the ground. Lasting access and humanitarian corridors will eventually require support from the UN Security Council under a Chapter 7 resolution, overcoming Russia’s long-standing resistance as events change. This is a more modest agenda, but it might save lives and bring about conditions that make a political settlement more feasible.