Skip to main content

Syria: Can Geneva2 peace talks translate into real changes on the ground?

By Jane Kinninmont and Abdullah Ali, Special to CNN
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian government and opposition representatives are attending peace talks in Geneva
  • Jane Kinninmont and Ali Abdullah say the summit does not reflect the mix of non-state actors involved
  • Diplomats have been managing expectations, saying it will be a long process, they say
  • But they say the credibility of all representatives is suffering from ongoing agony on the ground

Editor's note: Jane Kinninmont is senior research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based Chatham House, and is currently researching Iraq on the Regional and International Stage: National Interests and Foreign Policy Determinants and Dynamics. Ali Abdullah is a Syrian freelance journalist and an Asfari Fellow at Chatham House, researching Syria and its neighbors. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Kinninmont and Ali Abdullah.

(CNN) -- Millions of Syrians, living in desperate conditions, are hoping that the peace talks in Switzerland will bring some immediate changes.

Jane Kinninmont
Jane Kinninmont
Ali Abdullah
Ali Abdullah

But the difficulty in reaching agreement even on humanitarian access -- let alone the issue of a transitional government and the future role of Bashar Al Assad -- illustrates the difficulties in translating the elite-level Geneva meetings into real changes on the ground.

The Syrian government has come to the table because it thinks it has gained the upper hand politically, especially since it has become clear that Western countries do not have the appetite to intervene militarily.

Meanwhile, the regime's key allies, Iran and Russia, continue to back it strongly, partly because they see Assad as a force against jihadi terrorism.

The recent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement has not encouraged Iran to change its position on Syria; the opposition and its Gulf allies are worried that it has done the opposite. They argue the U.S. has in effect signaled to Iran that it is only interested in the nuclear issue, and is thus willing to ease sanctions on Iran despite its continued involvement in the violence in Syria.

The Syrian government now says the U.S. has resumed arming "terrorist groups" in Syria, which may be intended to puncture any such complacency.

But arming the opposition is unlikely to tip the balance decisively when opposition forces are facing a large state army backed by other states and by regional militias.

Important absentees

NATO: No military solution in Syria
Violence overshadows Syria talks
Syria's 110 year old refugee
Medical care in Syria called 'medieval'

Moreover, this form of high-level, international summit at a luxury resort is seen as well suited to interactions between states. It is not geared to represent the complex and fragmented mixture of non-state actors involved in the Syrian conflict.

The opposition consists of many different, localized factions and militias. The armed groups that are controlling many areas on the ground are absent from the internationally brokered peace talks, raising concerns about how any conclusion would be implemented by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC); compare the difficulties that the Libyan transitional leaders, accepted by the international community, have had in actually imposing their authority over militias on the ground.

There is also the problem of bringing the key regional players -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf states -- into any agreement.

The issue of Iranian participation was badly mishandled on the eve of the talks. But there are ways to bring them in through proxies or parallel diplomatic processes.

Saudi Arabia has signaled it may be willing to work with elements of the regime in a transitional government, but sees Assad as a red line. Both the role of Assad, and the broader question of Syria's role as a conduit for arms to Hezbollah will be major sticking points.

A slow process

Western diplomats are trying to manage expectations, saying the Geneva talks are the start of a long process that could take many months. It is predictable that they have so far stalled over the issue of a transitional government.

In theory it should be possible to build more of a consensus on humanitarian issues, such as allowing aid into the besieged city of Homs. But even food is politicized, as control of food supplies is being used as a political tactic to put pressure on opposition-held areas, and as the regime has now created a situation where agreeing to allow citizens to eat can be portrayed as making a "concession."

The credibility of all the supposed political representatives is suffering from the ongoing agony on the ground.

The regime is not showing seriousness in building confidence -- despite the many options it has to release imprisoned activists and to end the siege on hungry areas.

Meanwhile, the SNC needs to place the needs of the internally displaced and refugees as a central priority; this does not mean compromising on their political goals, but would rather give them more credibility on the ground.

In interviews in Turkey and Lebanon, many refugees have criticized the SNC for not paying enough attention to their humanitarian needs.

Even in a best case scenario, the solution will involve many steps. The first should be reaching a ceasefire and an agreement on humanitarian aid. The suggestion by the regime, recently supported by Iran, of having a "democratic election" -- which is technically due to take place this year -- is hardly a realistic option when millions of citizens have been forced out of the country.

The opposition needs to be prepared for a lengthy process. The SNC in particular need to try to open new channels of communication with different opposition factions and gain more support from all Syrian communities, to address the fears among some Syrians that even if there was a change of regime, they could just end up moving from one dictatorship to another.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Kinninmont and Abdullah Ali.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT