Today, if all goes well, a new round of peace talks on Syria will begin in Geneva. But already, the Assad regime appears intent on setting it up to fail.
Before the groups had even gathered in Switzerland, Syria’s foreign minister Walid Al Mualem declared that the regime “would not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency. Bashar Al Assad is a red line”. (A phrase carefully chosen to contrast with Barack Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use, which the regime trampled on unpunished.)
By insisting on this “red line”, the regime knows it has derailed the talks, as well as the reasonable possibility of a peace process. The opposition and its supporters may no longer talk of Mr Al Assad’s departure as the beginning point of discussions – as they used to – but they do see it as the destination, whether it is reached through a presidential election in which Mr Al Assad is not a candidate or through a managed transition that he oversees, leading to a consensus candidate. By bluntly saying that all of that is now off the table, the regime is scuttling any hope of a genuine peace.
That would not, perhaps, be such an issue were there an alternative. But Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, said over the weekend that there is “no plan B”.
“The plan B is just a continuation of a horrible conflict which will go on and on,” he said. The Assad regime knows this and it knows that in the international community there is no willingness to pursue any other track but negotiations – the refugee crisis has become too big for Europe to handle and the world, five years on, is fatigued by the country’s civil war. Almost any solution that could be sold as a victory will be accepted.
The regime is betting on this, but it is ignoring an essential component: that the Syrian people agree. Without a genuine peace process, the war will simply go on. The international community cannot will a peace into existence – it must strike a genuine deal that the majority of Syrians find acceptable. Otherwise, the peace will fail, whatever the participants in Geneva want.