With the invitation and dis-invitation of Iran earlier this week, the Syrian peace talks scheduled to start in Switzerland today have had dramatic beginnings. But it is important not to understate the significance of the first genuine and sustained attempt by the US and Russia to bring an end to the civil war that is tearing the country apart. And, if this does not happen – as it almost certainly will not – then it is still important to take definite steps to de-escalate the conflict so it no longer inflicts such terrible losses on the Syrian people.
The fact that the meeting is taking place at all really does matter. For the first time, the government and at least a faction of the opposition will be brought together. This can only be an advance on the two sides trying to kill each other. Furthermore, the energy which Washington and Moscow have put into staging the talks is also a sign of a genuine desire to bring the conflict to an end.
This was not necessarily true 18 months ago, when the US and Europe saw such a meeting as a precursor to the inevitable political demise of President Bashar al-Assad and his government. Yet such a stance did not reflect the military balance of power on the ground, where government forces were never likely to suffer total defeat without a full-scale foreign intervention. When the US and Britain abandoned plans for a military strike in September, after poison gas was used on civilians in Damascus, that option disappeared. And in current circumstances, uncompromising demands for Assad’s surrender are a recipe for continuing the war.
What practical measures can be taken to calm the violence, then? Local ceasefires do already exist and could be expanded, preferably with the UN playing as broad a role as possible through observers on the ground monitoring and mediating any suspension of violence. Otherwise, hatred and distrust between the two sides will ensure that ceasefires have a short life-span. UN observers are also needed to help arrange relief convoys to rebel-held enclaves, long-besieged by the government forces, where people are starving. The same applies to prisoner swaps.
It is unfortunate that Iran is absent from this week’s so-called Geneva II talks, given that the Iranian and Saudi governments are crucial players on opposing sides of the conflict. To have one and not the other present undermines the credibility of negotiations. The willingness of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to see an end to the fighting without a victory of the rebels, of whom they are the main financial and military supporters, must be tested. Meanwhile, a reduction in violence might be achieved by pressuring Turkey to clamp down on jihadi fighters crossing its 500-mile-long border with Syria. Turkey denies it has done so, but all the evidence suggests that it has variously backed rebels of every stripe.
The grave challenge of setting up the Geneva II meeting underlines how difficult it will be to get a multitude of players with differing interests, inside and outside Syria, to agree to anything. But at least an increasing number of those involved see no end to the slaughter other than a negotiated peace. And it is always better to be talking than not, however far away a solution may seem to be.