The long-awaited Geneva II conference seeking a solution to the three-year Syria crisis began on schedule this week with a public session attended by representatives of about 40 governments and the Syrian National Coalition. The unified message delivered by Washington, London, Paris and Ankara was that under no circumstances can President Bashar al-Assad be part of a transitional government.
To punctuate the point, a 31-page report was issued by a British law firm one day before the opening session took place in Montreux, Switzerland, accusing President Bashar al Assad of war crimes and crimes against humanity. British Foreign Secretary William Hague immediately threatened that his government was prepared to bring Assad to the docket at The Hague before the International Court of Justice. The report was produced privately by a London law firm, Carter Ruck, and the chairman of the private inquiry acknowledged that it was financed by the government of Qatar, a vigorous supporter of the rebellion against Assad.
The appearance of the dossier was intended to put maximum pressure on Syrian military and security factions to break from President Assad and cut a deal with secular factions of the Syrian rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his opening speech at Montreux and in a subsequent interview with Al Arabiya made the Western case clear: Assad must go and then a national unity government, comprised of the Syrian “deep state” and the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, can be formed to drive the Al Qaeda-linked jihadists out of the country.
The Obama Administration has spelled out in backroom discussions in Washington and elsewhere their absolute objective of Geneva II: To create a national unity government that is strong enough to counter and defeat Al Qaeda. Kerry specified that the objectives had to go beyond a short-term ceasefire and humanitarian effort in Aleppo, and that a national unity government could not be a continuation of the Assad regime with a few additional members of the opposition in the cabinet. The future government had to be committed to providing for and protecting all of the Syrian minorities with full representation of the Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Christians, along with the Sunni majority.
While the Russians are not prepared to abandon Assad, there is broad agreement between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on two critical requirements for the Geneva II process. First, the internal refugee crisis has reached a point of humanitarian emergency and must be addressed immediately. Second, Al Qaeda must be crushed and driven out of the country. For the Russians, such a defeat of the Al Qaeda apparatus in Syria would immediately weaken the Chechen separatists and jihadists who make up a hardcore of the Al Qaeda forces around the globe and who are threatening the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
On January 25, the formal talks began behind closed doors in Geneva. According to Lavrov, details are already being finalized for a large prisoner exchange and for humanitarian aid to reach refugees in the Aleppo area. But the issue of the future role of President Assad remains the biggest single fault line between the two sides. Kerry has made clear that, as far as the Obama Administration is concerned, no transitional government is possible until Assad agrees to leave.
Senior U.S. military sources do not believe that the Assad issue can be resolved and anticipate a breakdown of the talks, at which point Russia will resume significant arms shipments to the Syrian Army and President Obama will once again revisit the use of military force. For now, both sides have agreed to continue the talks for another week. The fact that they have agreed to continue talking is widely seen as the most positive thing to come out of the process so far.