Expectations are understandably low for an international peace conference on Syria that opened Wednesday in Switzerland. It isn’t just that the meeting almost didn’t happen because of a dispute over whether representatives of Iran would attend.
There’s also the fact that Russia, which has spearheaded the so-called Geneva II meeting with the United States, may be paying only lip service to the premise of the talks: that they will produce a “transitional governing body” in Damascus, with President Bashar Assad ceding at least some power. And the rebels who are grudgingly participating in the conference don’t speak for all of Assad’s opponents. Finally, Assad may believe that his hand has been strengthened not only by battlefield victories but by the legitimacy he has gained by agreeing to surrender chemical weapons.
No wonder a senior U.S. official cautioned that “this is the beginning of a process. It is not going to be fast.”
But even if the odds of success are long, the Obama administration was right to press for the convening of Geneva II (which will actually take place in the lakeside community of Montreux). It is at least possible that the conference will help to stop the killing, speed humanitarian assistance and lay the groundwork for a political transition.
Although Russia blocked a resolution at the United Nations that would have forced Assad to step aside, there are signs that its patience with him may be limited. The U.S. also believes there are elements in the Assad government that seek what a State Department official called a “way out” from a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, uprooted more than 2 million and ravaged Syria’s infrastructure. And although the U.N. secretary-general withdrew an invitation for Iran, an Assad ally, to participate in the conference, it’s not out of the question, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry has suggested, that Iran could play a constructive role on the sidelines.
Some critics insist that instead of concentrating on the diplomatic track, the Obama administration should have made good long ago on the president’s repeated statements that Assad “has to go” by providing significant military aid to rebel forces. But it’s too glib to suggest that it would have been easy for the U.S. to earmark lethal assistance to the “right” rebels.
Because of Assad’s brutal repression of peaceful dissent, Syria was plunged into a civil war that has become a humanitarian nightmare. But there is concern that a strategy of toppling Assad at all costs could have unintended consequences, including a chaotic struggle for control of the country and, potentially, the empowerment of groups sympathetic to Al-Qaida. Though far from guaranteed to succeed, the search for a political solution remains the better alternative.