How Syria talks were derailed before they started
January 16th, 2014
01:06 PM ET

How Syria talks were derailed before they started

By Elise Labott

When Secretary of State John Kerry first took office he talked of changing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's calculus.

Assad "needs to know that he can't shoot his way out of this," Kerry said in March at a Rome meeting with members of the Syrian opposition.

When he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first conceived the idea of bringing the regime and the opposition together for peace talks in Geneva, they believed strengthened international support for both the political opposition and rebel forces would leave the Syrian leader ready to negotiate his own ouster.

U.S. policy since then has had the opposite effect.

Assad's calculus has indeed changed.

The political opposition is on the verge of collapse, rebel groups now having to battle the growing strength of Islamist forces on the ground, and his regime is at the center of implementing an international deal to rid the country of chemical weapons. He heads to Geneva believing the false narrative that he is even more powerful.

As his forces continue to kill thousands each week from barrel bombs with impunity, Assad has no reason to think he can't shoot his way out of the crisis.

With a week to go until the talks, the Syrian opposition has yet to put forth a delegation for Geneva and remains bitterly divided on whether to attend at all.

Members of the opposition suggest that the United States is setting them up to fail by not providing the Free Syrian Army with sufficient resources to change the balance of power on the ground.

"Is the opposition being set up for success by United States, not just to participate in a conference that will lead to a political solution, but being empowered to ensure success of the stated objectives of Geneva?" asked Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the opposition.

"It is the position of the opposition that you cannot have a successful political process if the U.S. doesn't also increase its support. Right now, the regime thinks its winning. They think they have successfully avoided military strikes, western sanctions and repercussions for continued war crimes. It is these components that make any successful outcomes of Geneva unlikely," Shahbandar said.

For months, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has shuttled to Turkey to meet with members of the Syrian National Council. In preparing for Geneva, Ford and other U.S. officials repeatedly urged the opposition to present a transition plan that saw the group playing a major role in a post al-Assad government, which could include some elements of the current government. Now the group is being implored to just show up.

The Obama administration maintains it still believes al-Assad should step down. But rather than hand over power, he is talking about running for re-election this spring in what is all but certain to be a fraudulent election. And the opposition, whose legitimacy is mostly conferred upon them by the international community, appears to be in no position to force his hand.

"The Syrian opposition is in a space capsule heading toward Geneva and breaking up in the atmosphere and this may be one of the West's biggest failures," says Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

"Geneva has put unbearable pressure on an opposition that has always lacked unity and direction and this has a great bearing for any process the international powers are looking to launch," Sheikh said.

Having lacked resolve to either use force against al-Assad or arm the opposition, and with no coming together of the Security Council on even the growing humanitarian crisis, the Obama administration now has fewer tools in the toolbox.

What's left is the diplomatic "fig leaf" of Geneva, which few people besides Kerry believe is more than an effort to check the diplomatic box and manage some sort of response to the Syrian crisis, rather than demonstrating the mettle to find a solution.

"Despite how everyone tries to dress it up, this is not the right kind of place for the U.S. to be on what is shaping up to be the biggest humanitarian disaster of this century and which is promising to have the largest loss of life and bloodiest conflict the Middle East has seen," Sheikh said.

"But there is no alternative. It is all we have, so now have to go through it and hope for something after Geneva. I think it is a misreading of the situation and the whole region. I'm not sure they can stand many more months of this while the ground churns," Sheikh said.

Moreover, there is no agreement in terms of what the parameters of the Geneva talks are. The United States, United Nations and other Western and Arab countries want talks on a transitional government. The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran - who won't be there as a participant but with thousands of fighters on the ground helping the regime will be the elephant in the room - believe Geneva is about fighting the growing Islamic insurgency and rehabilitating al-Assad.

With al Qaeda forces continuing to capture territory and even checkpoints on the border with Turkey, narrative of al-Assad as savior is stronger.

Even as Washington is turning up the pressure on the opposition to join the talks, the administration is significantly lowering expectations. U.S. officials concede merely getting the opposition and the regime in the room would be a success.

"When we first conceptualized the conference, we believed that we would be able to help form a transitional government and that would be that," one senior State Department official acknowledged. "But we understand achieving political progress is more challenging eight months later."

The first direct talks between the two sides after three years of conflict would be a milestone. To jumpstart negotiations over a political transition, Kerry said he and Lavrov are seeking confidence-building measures, including possible local ceasefires, access for delivery of humanitarian aid and exchange of prisoners. Agreement on these issues would also be no small feat.

With progress toward a transitional government highly unlikely, the conference will now focus as much on the humanitarian crisis as it will on discussions about Syria's political future.

"The humanitarian situation has taken on a greater importance. It is an enormous crisis and it is appropriate to focus on that," another senior U.S. official said.

"We still have a desire to see a transitional government and nobody is giving up with that. But we are also thinking about what our other objectives are," the official said.

Having accepted the fact that Geneva is not likely be a turning point for the conflict, the administration now says it hopes Geneva will be the beginning of a "process." But there is wide trepidation among the Syrian opposition about a process that is open-ended and fails to stop the violence and suffering.

"Nothing will happen overnight but it can't be indefinite, Shahbandar said. "The regime will drag this process on while it continues to bomb cities and increase its starvation campaign."

In addition, any future effort to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict must focus more on broadening the participation of that process to include more Syrians with influence on the ground.

"The biggest failure of Geneva is that the regime and opposition can't turn the corner. They can't because they don't represent the majority of Syrians," Sheikh said.

Revolutionary councils inside Syria, the backbone of the civil resistance, have been providing services to the people and are increasingly becoming the de-facto representation of the Syrian opposition.

But those doing the work on the ground, whether it be political or fighting, are not involved in the political process under way.

Sheikh, who meets frequently with a cross section of Syrians said that with all of its planning for a post al-Assad Syria, the international community has yet to help build an indigenous opposition in a meaningful way.

"Alawites, Christians, tribal leaders, rebel commanders and business associations all need to be brought in and they aren't," Sheikh said. "If I can do that in a little old think tank, how come the international community hasn't been able to support that?"

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    Should've just started dropping bombs would've gotten everybody's attention. We desperately need a no-fly zone .

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  11. Random

    I think when I said make sure Syria is a slam dunk Kerry misunderstood. There are multiple problems in syria. One that really needs to be resolved. That is the stockpiles. We have some direct ability to affect the outcome of that. Its understandable Kerry might feel like he missed an objective but he hasn't you can't really think about suggesting regime change or talks until that stuff is disposed of. The biggest problem in Kerry's eyes is Assad's ease of controlling people in his country ruthlessly. That is precisely what you want to aid in the primary goal of rid syria of cw. If you think there is someone there friendly to us and morally worth supporting tell them to stop fighting assad to help speed up how fast the cw can be destroyed. During that time Assad has ( and will continue) to lay waste to any who continue fighting. When the cw are done, most likely he is going to be finishing up with any who oppose him. Once dictatorship like control is restored THEN get our guys and assad in the un /geneva talks. Then they can talk it out. IF power transitions it does so peacefully, with out the chance of gihadis taking over by force as is about to happen here. Politically correct fighting is not going to stabilize syria. Nor is it a good idea to force transition it when it has stockpiles of cw. Defang it, then resolve the issues you have. Keep your eye on the prize.

    January 19, 2014 at 2:44 am | Reply

    Just another Libya.

    January 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  13. Nena

    Leave Assad alone. He is a moderate and does not go around killing women and children. We should side with him and tell the rebels to surrender and repent before Allah. Syria was a stable and balanced country before the rebels and infiltrators ruined it. Syria's women were able to pursue their dreams and their women preachers have a voice over there. Why are we constantly going around looking to kill off leaders of other nations? Libya was better off with Ghadafi and Egypt was doing just fine with Mubarek. Both knew who the real bad guys were didn't they? And now all those bad guys are free from prison killing and raping.

    January 16, 2014 at 8:38 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      ....He is a moderate and does not go around killing women and children...
      Are you joking?!
      So who killed over 100000 people?
      Who shot the chemical weapon an dynamite barrels over women and children?
      Are you from iran regime that support this shia criminal?

      January 17, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  14. LebronW

    At the risk of being chastised by my fellow Americans, I must just say that Assad is at least willing to sit at the table and face his enemy and look them in the eye. Why assume that a re-election would be a fraud? How do we not know that that the majority of Syrian citizens would vote him in as their President? We never should have encouraged anarchy in other countries under the guise of pro democracy movements. It killed one of our Ambassadors and has caused global unrest. I don't really know Assad personally but I just never heard of him just going around murdering civilians, seeking out Christians to kill, acting all rabid regarding uber radical Islamic power control, etc. I can't say I have one nice thing to say about the group of radicals that chose this course and decided to start such a sad and vicious overthrow of a sitting government. Syria was a very stable country with basic rights for women. Why did the poor and bitter people of that country decide to ruin it? There is still hope if they could somehow put together a delegation of intelligent people and present their issues before the Geneva conference. But the refuse to even try to organize a small delegation? How then do they plan to run a country? Just saying you want someone removed and then have no trained and experienced government to take over is another disaster waiting to happen. They should just surrender, cease fire, and let a new election take place. Do they really believe that the military of Syria is going to just bow down to them and totally betray Assad? They should just all say enough is enough and ask Allah to forgive all of them. PUt their swords in their sheaths and unite forces for the greater good of their country. How many of their people have fled? How many innocents have died? Do they really believe this is what Allah wants? Ask the ange Gabriel to bring forth the message of peace and he will and that will pleae Allah.

    January 16, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      A criminal in re-election?
      Where else this one possible?

      January 17, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Reply
      • geo isra hel~

        January 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm |
  15. reasonablebe

    there are no good guys or sides in the syrian conflict. heads you lose, tails you lose.... nothing we can do.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  16. asdf

    Let em kill each other. Don't waste another dollar and certainly not another American in that crap hole.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Reply
    • O'neil

      Ah, no American was killed in Syria. At least none sent by the government. As for dollars, I don't believe Syria is on the list for countries that gets billions per year. Think you mistook Israel for Syria.

      January 17, 2014 at 1:07 am | Reply
  17. jewoodbur

    Flawed policy from both an incapable politician and a "messianic" diplomat.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  18. jewoodbur

    Flawed policy from incapable a politician and diplomat.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • jewoodbur

      Sorry, I was typing over the top of my dinner...

      January 16, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  19. Fubarack

    Obama muffed the kick-off, then ran into the wrong end zone, and was tackled by the band.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  20. Brian Smith

    Yeah, this story isn't BIASED whatsoever. Maybe Assad is fighting Terrorists like he always says he has been doing – unless we think Al-Queda isn't a terrorist group?

    January 16, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • asdf

      Any maybe Assad like his Dad before him is butchering the people he is supposedly governing and getting away with it by calling them terrorists.

      January 16, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
      • longfisch

        Or maybe both of you are right.

        January 16, 2014 at 8:07 pm |
    • Mike

      When western country protected Al assad, then extremist group got popular between Syrian people, because they do not see any other option to step down the criminal dictator.

      January 17, 2014 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  21. josh P.

    "But rather than hand over power, he is talking about running for re-election this spring in what is all but certain to be a fraudulent election".

    Keep up the propaganda Yew owned media,let me guess you think only Alawites is supporting Assad as well in the Army,bunch of filth,Assad is killing your Cannibals and there is nothing you can do about it.

    January 16, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  22. KEVIN

    It's the culture. They love to fight each other. When one of them are killed they throw a large party like funeral to celebrate that he died in battle for Allah – God – Bugs Bunney (whatever). They teach the children that the best way to live is to fight and die for Allah. There is nothing we can do.

    January 16, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  23. paul

    AND the United States has lost every war it ever fought in, Excellent track record,

    January 16, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Aris

      Just the big ones. Police actions (as stupid as they are, don't count).

      January 16, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
    • jewoodbur

      I guess you have forgotten the Revolutionary War, the Spanish American War, WWI and WWII. Managed to avoid American history in school, eh? flunked American History but they moved you through anyway. Yeah, still being in high school at 20 y/o is a drag....

      January 16, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  24. Jessica McGwin

    The opposition in this war is the very same that the United States has been engaged for many many years. Any support from the United States Government to the opposition is in effect killing our own men and women. We have already seen the damage done by the supply's that John McCain lobbied for. Talk about friendly fire. The answer for me is no. No to the weapons, no to the boots if humanitarian supplies need to be delivered and disbursed. Than the UN should organize such needs. To avoid an illegal shipment of weapons a natural country should be in charge of inspecting the cargo. One of the reasons we will not see the opposition come to the table is because terrorist do not negotiate peace they thrive of war pain and cayos.

    January 16, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      What we Americans sorely need to do, Jessica, is to drop our insane demand that Assad must go. We have no such moral authority to make such an ignominious demand in the first place and we have absolutely no more right to dictate Syria's any more than we that of both Afghanistan and Iraq! Would you like it if the Chinese were to tell us who will and will not be our next President? I think not!

      January 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • David Lejdar

      So because there were some criminals during the war for U.S. independence, all of the U.S. is criminal and particularly these days not legit whatsoever – is what the line of argumentation that all the rebels there are terrorists is saying?

      January 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Reply
      • jewoodbur

        That would likely depend upon the ratio of rebels to terrorists or whether or not they merge forces for a time,,,

        January 16, 2014 at 7:28 pm |
  25. Donald George MacDonald

    And our United States citizens have always been told, “there are no diplomatic alternative left,” so our finest sons and daughters must again go to war as bravely as we did and our ancestors did.

    And our U.S. leaders have always pledged that our finest sons and daughters bravely sacrificed their lives in foreign nations for something..."for our further freedom and democracy at home."

    And our U.S. leaders and citizens still try to coerce more of our finest youths to defend more of their chosen causes and to attack more of their chosen foes.

    And the U.S. has allocated $572 billion in "defense" spending for 2014.

    And our majority of citizens only parrot to others that U.S. global military strength and expansionism and weapons productions and weapons sales will make us safer when instead the opposite is surely true.

    And even our most patriotic and brave soldiers will not be able to protect us from our foreign blunders.

    And even our most patriotic and brave soldiers will not be able to protect us from those who fear U.S. global military expansionism and from those who covet our sold weapons of mass destruction and from those who despise the arrogance of U.S. actions and its failed foreign policies.

    January 16, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Good posting, Donald. Thank you.

      January 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • David Lejdar

      Well, them so-called terrorists (who are called such because they want to achieve everything by violence and threat, and apparently part of what they want is to become some sort of ultimate totalitarian authoritarian government who decides on anyone's fate based on their current mood or so – and that without being elected into the White House for the U.S., to be moreorless just that) may not be able to really crusade New York, and even a mere Syria with many of their effort and time seems to be at least a noticeable struggle (with particularly them blowing up stuff making them at least look as if they are some spoilt brats who get upset about that the universe doesn't adapt to their desires, or as some would put it, that the universe doesn't recognize them as if God), tho in terms of mere U.S. security, letting a confirmed enemy take a region to eventually be significantly used for further war efforts, not really clever in terms of warfare.

      January 16, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Reply
      • jewoodbur

        Outside of legal brief, that is the longest "run on" sentence I have ever tried to understand! LOL

        January 16, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
      • reasonablebe

        huh? wnat?

        January 16, 2014 at 7:38 pm |
      • David Lejdar

        See, you guys pay probably hundreds of millions U.S. dollars to get stuff encoded, whereas I on my own without really any encoding manage to write it sort of encoded. Am I awesome or what? 🙂

        January 16, 2014 at 11:29 pm |

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