The Syrian Civil War is approaching its 33rd month, over 126,000 have now been killed in the conflict thus far, and neither side is gaining significant ground. Experts predicting the imminent collapse of the Assad regime or a routing of the opposition are few and far between as it appears increasingly unlikely that either side will be able to secure outright victory through military means alone in the foreseeable future.
The two key dates on the horizon are January 22nd, 2014, the proposed date for the Geneva II peace talks, and mid-2014, the expected date of destruction for all Syrian chemical weapons. The expectations attached to both suggest that the status quo of continual fighting is unfortunately not likely to change.
The Geneva II talks hopes to bring together the opposition and regime with American and Russian diplomats to initiate discussion with the primary goal of ending the violence and setting the groundwork for a transitional Syria.
The negotiations at Geneva are the best chance for a breakthrough in the conflict since little is changing on the battlefield. However, there have already been significant issues that make the Geneva prospects look less than promising. The talks have been pushed back multiple times, and while the regime says Assad stepping down is out of the question, the opposition has reiterated time and time again a Syria without Assad is their top demand moving forward.
While both Assad and the Syrian National Coalition have skeptically agreed to attend the Geneva II talks, unless they can set aside the leadership issue it is tough to imagine anything productive may be accomplished at all. Small steps towards reducing violence, such as the safe passage of refugees and the protection of civilians should take precedence over future political settlements in the negotiations.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is on track thus far, having destroyed all the means of production. However they have set a goal of mid-2014 to eliminate all weapons which implies that even the international powers who signed on to their mission don’t expect the conflict to end for at least another half a year.
While strategic towns and supply lines continue to exchange hands back and forth between the regime and the opposition, neither side is making serious progress against the other. Instead the war is spilling over further into Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. Recently, the lack of medical care has become so disastrous cases of polio have reemerged after the disease was eradicated from Syria more than ten years prior.
All this proves that the political settlement should take a backseat to basic humanitarian concerns. At this point, even if Assad were to suddenly disappear from the scene and the regime were to immediately collapse, the result would be further jockeying for power among the opposition groups. On one hand, Assad should recognize that he will never preside over a stable Syria again and change his tactics accordingly to consider a future without him at the top. On the other, the opposition should realize that their efforts thus far at trying to defeat Assad outright have fallen short. If they cannot present themselves as a legitimate opposition and minimize the extremist factions also countering the regime, their alternative Syria isn’t assuredly better than one with Assad.
The US, Russia, and Syrian actors involved should focus Geneva II on the critical needs of civilians first. Reducing the fighting is paramount, and advantageous to the rebels especially. A basic framework, excluding contentious issues like Assad’s role, should be sought, because focusing too much on the deeper political future of Syria could derail the discussion completely. If the opposition really is serious about a Syria without Assad, they should begin preparing for it constructively outside of the battlefield.