Mixed messages over the much-delayed international conference on Syria at the weekend hardly augur well. As soon as the head of the Arab League had made clear that the long-awaited “Geneva 2” meeting would begin on 23 November, the UN envoy to Syria denied that a date was fixed. Talks with Qatar and Turkey, and after that the US and Russia, must take place first, he said.
A trivial tussle over the diplomatic limelight? Perhaps; but not entirely. The episode is also emblematic of a civil war that now has so many participants, with so many different agendas, and excites such conflicting international interests, that it appears almost irresolvable. But today’s meeting in London between Syrian opposition groups and 11 so-called Friends of Syria – including the US, France and Saudi Arabia – is no less important for all that.
There are a host of difficulties in persuading Syria’s opposition to the negotiating table, on 23 November or at any other time. But without them, Geneva 2 cannot happen; and the Syrian National Coalition meets in Istanbul next week to decide whether to participate, with the threat that its largest faction will walk out if it does.
Today is, then, a crucial opportunity to make the case. With Syria mired in military stalemate, there is no alternative but to seek a political solution. And with religious extremism taking hold among many rebel groups on the ground, the moderate opposition must seize the chance of talks or risk advancing Bashar al-Assad’s spurious claim that his appalling violence is a necessary response to rising Islamism.
All responsibility does not rest with the opposition, however. Above all, the international community must stand together. It is not impossible. In the aftermath of the gas attacks in Ghouta in August, it was as much Russian pressure as the threat of US air strikes that forced Assad’s hand. The momentum must be kept up, the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria must be met with the same urgency as was the issue of chemical weapons. That means more aid, of course; but it also means a united front in demanding meaningful transition plans from the Assad regime; and it means hammering through tricky diplomatic issues such as the involvement of Iran.
All of which presents formidable challenges. But there is no alternative. There has been a false sense of progress in recent weeks, after Damascus’ capitulation over chemical weapons. While welcome, so isolated a success only underlines the failure of two-plus years of international bickering. Nor can Assad’s spasm of realpolitik-inspired co-operation over his sarin stocks distract attention from the ongoing brutality of his regime and the untold suffering he has unleashed by clinging to power.
Even if constructive, today’s meeting in London is but a small step on the long and difficult road to Geneva. But one small step is better than none at all.