- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The clash between Washington and its adversaries over whether an end to Syria’s war can be achieved without the resignation of President Bashar Assad was on full display Wednesday as a long-delayed international peace conference got underway in Switzerland.

Moments into the Geneva II conference, Secretary of State John F. Kerry pushed home the Obama administration’s view that there is “no way possible in the imagination” that Mr. Assad could ever “regain the legitimacy to govern in Syria” — drawing an expected, acerbic rebuke from a delegation representing Mr. Assad.

That the gap in thinking — after nearly three years of war and diplomatic maneuvering by the U.S., Russia and other powers — was so clearly out in the open seemed to prove the assertions of seasoned observers that the Obama administration may be in over its head in Switzerland.

Administration officials for months have said the crux of the peace conference is to build from the basic framework of an agreement more than a year ago by Washington, Moscow and others with a hand in Syria’s war, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, France, China and Britain. The Geneva Communique essentially called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, a step many believe would foreshadow Mr. Assad’s removal from power.

Regardless of such speculation, the Obama administration has praised this week’s conference as a vital step forward, arguing that even the most basic talks could begin to ease the violence gripping Syria, despite sobering assessments from analysts who say any kind of substantial deal remains a long way off.

“I would disagree with those that are saying that this is meant to fail, but I would agree that this process will not lead probably to a political settlement in the next few weeks,” said Philippe Leroux-Martin, a researcher for the Future of Diplomacy Project of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Mr. Leroux-Martin compared the conference to initial attempts during the early 1990s to push for an end to the ethnic and civil war that was tearing through the former Yugoslavia. He noted that there were “four unsuccessful peace plans between 1992 and 1995” before a major agreement was reached at a conference in Dayton, Ohio.

“Anyone could say they were meaningless, but the fact is they all nourished substantial provisions of the Dayton Peace Accords,” said Mr. Leroux-Martin, who served as a member of a team of legal advisers overseeing aspects of the agreement.

With the International Crisis Group saying that nearly half of Syria’s roughly 22 million citizens have lost their homes and more than 100,000 have lost their lives in the war, Mr. Leroux-Martin added that the peace conference’s success might be measured best by the extent to which the divided sides at the negotiating table agree to set ground rules by which humanitarian aid can flow into the war zone.

Nicholas Burns, who served as a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, went a step further, saying that “at the very least, if the Russians and the Americans can agree with the Syrian government to a temporary cease-fire, at least in parts of the country, and to let the United Nations and refugee aid agencies in to give help to people, that is at least a place where they’ve got a start.”

But Mr. Burns, who made his comments Wednesday on NPR, also offered a sobering read of the conference as a whole, asserting that he does not believe “that early progress is going to be possible.”

“The Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, Russia, Iran, the United States, they’re all disunited,” said Mr. Burns, who heads the Future of Diplomacy Project. “They’re all feuding with each other.”

Others were even more circumspect.

“The maxim that any dialogue is better than no dialogue — ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ — may produce some benefit, although there are times when better understanding does lead to even more hostility,” Middle East analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in an assessment published Wednesday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Assad will not step down, the opposition will remain divided and continue to become more extreme, and outside states will be as divided in their goals as before the meeting,” Mr. Cordesman wrote. He argued that Iran, which the United Nations disinvited from the peace talks just hours before they began, likely will support the Assad government “with even more dedication.”

“Key Arab Gulf states — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE — will continue to fund violent Sunni Islamist factions, and truly dangerous extreme movements like al Qaeda and [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] will continue to gain funding and volunteers,” he said. “The spillover of violence into Lebanon and Iraq will continue, and likely will expand.”

Mr. Kerry may have had such skepticism in mind during his opening remarks when, despite his confrontational words toward Mr. Assad, he made a call for calm and pleaded with all parties involved to “find a way forward.”

“There are, in this room, all of the players who have the ability, with the exception of one or two, to have an impact on the choices that are made here,” Mr. Kerry told delegations representing Mr. Assad and the opposition that is fighting to drive him from power. “If we put our common energies together, we can forge a resolution that can provide peace to the region and peace to the people of Syria.”

The prospects for real progress appeared to dim when Mr. Assad’s top diplomat lashed out at U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after Mr. Ban pushed him to wrap up his remarks.

“You live in New York, I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

Mr. Ban, acting a moderator, then asked Mr. al-Moallem to “please refrain from inflammatory rhetoric,” sparking further exchanges over the foreign minister’s speaking time.

Moments later, tensions appeared to ease when Mr. al-Moallem closed his speech and drew laughter from his delegation by telling Mr. Ban that “Syria always keeps its promises.”

But it was Mr. al-Moallem’s direct comments to Mr. Kerry that seemed to linger.

Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to confer or withdraw the legitimacy of a president, a constitution, or a law, except for the Syrians themselves,” the foreign minister said, according to the Tehran Times.

The claim could not have stood in starker contrast to Mr. Kerry’s assertions that “we need to deal with reality here,” and that “mutual consent, which is what has brought us here, for a transition government means that that government cannot be formed with someone that is objected to by one side or the other.”

“That,” he said, “means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government.”

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