The Importance of Geneva II: Syrian Peace Talks

January 20, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

On January 22, major world powers will gather in Geneva to discuss peace talks regarding the troubling situation in Syria.  Officials are describing Geneva II, as it is being referred to, as the best potential for a peaceful solution in Syria.  It also broke last week that the main Syrian opposition group would be attending and participating in the peace conference.  This meeting is extremely important because Syria is in a state of utter chaos and disarray.  Thousands have been killed in the ongoing civil war and many more have been displaced.  This could be a last ditch peaceful attempt to end the fighting by global diplomats since the world has eschewed from military force thus far.  There are also many challenges involved in the talks and these challenges may prove too difficult to overcome.

First, the Assad regime has shown no interest in stepping down.  Many lawmakers in the United States believe, in order to end the fighting in Syria, we should support regime change.  Our nation has a long, dark history of backing such regime changes (attempts to overthrow Castro in Cuba, the military coup in South Vietnam that took out Diem, the attempts to oust Nicaraguan leaders, calling for President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to step down, etc.) and in most circumstances, they have not ended with favorable outcomes.  The United States must tread carefully as to not upset the international diplomatic code of state sovereignty as we have a recent pattern of doing.  However, Assad has proven to be an ineffective leader at uniting ethnic groups and has even gassed thousands of his own citizens.  While he has virtually gone unpunished for these actions, his legitimacy has been compromised.  If he refuses to step down, this may contribute to mercurial consequences such as military action.

The next challenge will be to unite ethnic groups in Syria.  As seen in Iraq currently, alienation of groups has led to an unstable state and spurred violent uprisings.  Syria has a similar ethnic make up to Iraq with Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, but Syria also has an Alawite minority.  Assad is an Alawite and many Alawite loyalists have felt cornered into fighting for his regime despite their disdain for him as a leader because they do not want to be alienated or outcast if, say, Sunnis come to power after the revolution.  The Kurds have been subject to extreme segregation in Iraq as well as Syria.  It will be very important during the peace talks to bring together these groups because alienation will only lead to more violence.

Al-Qaeda has posed a huge problem in Syria as well.  They have found a perfect opportunity to inject themselves into the chaos and gain control of territories in northern Syria.  With the addition of al-Qaeda, it seems there is a three front battle raging in Syria between extremists, Assad loyalists, and Syrian rebels.  Al-Qaeda has thrown a monkey wrench into the conflict by joining with rebel groups in an attempt to implement Sharia Law or Islamic rule, a major blow to western interests.  There is also internal al-Qaeda fight between two of their branches, Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate who changed their name to sound more Syrian) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-sham (ISIS), formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq.  The two have been vying for legitimacy and power in Syria.  According to U.S. officials, the Iraq and Syria border is nonexistent allowing for terrorist groups to travel freely between the two countries transporting arms and soldiers.  It is imperative that the peace talks focus on dispelling these terror factions, especially from areas in which they have already gained control and have begun to tax the inhabitants.

Iran has also posed a problem for the talks.  Iran has been a firm backer of the Assad regime and has provided aid and support to the regime as well as backing insurgent groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.  January 20, marks the first day of a landmark six month deal between Iran and the p5+1 countries  (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany) to scale back Iran’s nuclear program.  This is the first major step of cooperation for a rogue, state-sponsoring terrorist nation such as Iran in some time.  Given Iran’s aforementioned history, they have faced skepticism about joining the Geneva II peace talks.  Iran would like to attend but “without conditions.”  United States Secretary of State John Kerry invited Iran, “as conditioned on Iran’s explicit and public support for the full implementation of the Geneva communique.”  It is important for the world and especially the United States not to alienate Iran in this delicate situation with the nuclear deal about to start.  The United States has waited many years for warm relations and while this nuclear deal is just a beginning, it is important not to disrupt the progress by further discriminating against Iran.

The January 22 peace talks are sure to be filled with consternation.  If these talks fail to generate any real change, not only will the fighting in Syria continue, but also, more nations may have to get involved.  The deadline set by United Nations inspectors to rid Syria of their chemical weapons stockpile has already passed begging the question: was the Russian-led deal good enough?  Syria holds a central location in the Middle East and their stability will greatly contribute to stability across the region.  Timid diplomacy has been marginally successful thus far but bolder strides must be achieved.