Geneva Talks Hold the Only Key to Syria

It took almost a year for the Geneva communiqué on Syria of June 2012 to be dusted off and for diplomacy to be given another try. The agreement last month between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia to launch a new political process, Geneva II, marked an important opportunity. An opportunity that is already wilting under intense strain.

Yet after two years of destruction and 80,000 deaths, it is precisely such a bold and inclusive political approach, rather than military action, that still offers the best — and perhaps the only — chance of averting even greater suffering, radicalization and regional implosion.

To succeed, the West must urgently step up its diplomatic maneuvering and make the ending of the conflict a priority over wider political ambitions. This will entail real deal-making to ensure that all of the key international and regional actors have a sufficient stake in the process to back it fully, and so press their allies in Syria to do likewise. Unpalatable compromises will be needed — in particular, accepting that Bashar al-Assad’s fate must be a question rather than a precondition for the transition process and that Iran must play a role in any diplomatic process. For the sake of Syria, the wider region and Western security interests, this should now be the strategic imperative.

Those voices in the West pushing for a military solution, whether through the establishment of no-fly zones, the direct arming of Syrian rebels or military strikes against regime targets, have become increasingly vocal. The case is made that this will be the only way of tipping the balance against Assad and forcing either meaningful compromises or capitulation.

Russia’s recent decision to supply new antiaircraft missiles and MIG fighter jets was a predictable response to Europe’s ending its arms embargo on the country and growing support in French and British government circles to supply the rebels with arms.

Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country. The idea that the West can empower and remotely control moderate forces is optimistic at best. Escalation begets escalation and mission creep is a predictable outcome if the West sets out on a military path.

The Syrian opposition and their regional backers will take Western military support as a signal that their long-held strategy of drawing in the West to achieve total victory is working — with the consequence that they will be even less inclined to engage in politics and abandon maximalism.

In this context, it is time for a real — and hitherto untested — political push by Western actors. While the argument is made that the opposition needs strengthening first, there will never be an ideal moment to switch tracks from fighting to talking, and in the meantime the devastation continues.

That is why getting to Geneva II and making it work — even if piecemeal and stuttering at first — must become the first order of business. As a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Syria: The Imperative of De-escalation” argues, international consensus is an absolute prerequisite for cajoling the warring parties into a space where political negotiations can gain traction. There can thus be no pre-condition on talks and all parties must be invited to the table, including Iran if Assad is also to be pressed. That report suggests that the agenda for Geneva II should be derived from the already agreed Geneva communiqué of a year ago — focusing on an agreed political transition, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, access for humanitarian assistance and ratcheting down violence and further militarization.

The West’s pro-opposition allies in the Gulf and Turkey will only be convinced if Americans and Europeans are themselves making an unequivocal case for Geneva II rather than hedging their bets. President Obama will need to be personally invested in Geneva II and make this the priority in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-8 later this month.

An international accord would mark a decisive return of politics to the scene. While no one expects the conflict to end soon — Syria is too polarized and awash with weaponry — a genuine international commitment to an ongoing political process would mark an important shift in trajectory. Given the deepening political, military and financial dependence of both sides on external backers, united international pressure to push them both toward a power-sharing agreement represents the best strategy for eventually ending the fighting. It will mark a decisive step toward dampening the absolutist ambitions of the warring parties, increasing the incentive to cut a deal, particularly as conflict fatigue sets in.

Given the ongoing cycle of escalation fueled by announcements of new weapon flows, restrictions on which countries can take part in talks, and desired preconditions, Geneva II is already on the ropes. The United States and Europe need to act urgently to reverse this trend. The grim alternative is an internationally backed escalation that could leave Syria and the region in permanent ruins, with likely spillover much closer to home.

Javier Solana has served as foreign minister of Spain, secretary general of NATO, and E.U. High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is a former secretary general of NATO and a former foreign minister of the Netherlands.

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