4 Things to Look For in Geneva II Conference on Syria's Future

Some glimmer of hope exists among doubts for immediate success, says a former U.S. delegate to Syria.

A worker sets up a United Nations banner Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in preparation for the start of this week's Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.
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Delegates from some of the world's most powerful and influential countries converge on Switzerland this week, hoping to lay groundwork that could end the almost 3-year-old civil war in Syria, a brutal fight that has killed more than 100,000 and displaced millions.

The scope of the Geneva II conference remained in flux as of Tuesday morning: The U.N. withdrew a hasty invitation to the Iranian government to participate following pressure from the U.S., and it remains unclear precisely what elements of the disjointed Syrian opposition will show up. Perhaps most importantly, no participant knows whether any other will be willing to cooperate on a domestic schism that has become largely a proxy fight for foreign powers.

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The official goal of the conference, the second since the so-called Geneva I conference two years ago, is solely to establish a political transition for Syria. This presents a quagmire for those involved, faced with the steadfast administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad versus a rebel opposition that says it will not accept any future government that includes the current leader.

"In my view, the near-term prospects are zero. Absolutely zero," says Frederic Hof, a former State Department official who served as the U.S. special representative to the transition in Syria. He participated in the Geneva I conference in 2012, and spoke with reporters and observers at the Aspen Institute Tuesday morning ahead of Geneva II's opening meetings in Montreux, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

Reconciliation and reconstruction in Syria will take years, Hof says, adding the discussions beginning this week do not have a set ending date and could continue for months.

Yet some good still could come from this summit through discipline and the right ingredients, he says.

Here are four things to look for in the coming days:

Keep Your Head in the Game

It's important for the delegates who participate in Geneva II to focus on the goal of the conference, which is strictly to follow up on the 2012 terms for beginning political transition in Syria.

"Don't let Russia and the [Syrian] regime change the subject," says Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Assad and his government have enjoyed a surge of confidence in recent months following a string of military victories over the rebel forces, who have seen their concentration increasingly diluted by a growing number of Islamic extremists operating within their ranks.

The recent deal brokered through the Russians over the regime's chemical stockpiles amounts to a tacit contract with the U.S. and its allies, formally recognizing that Assad is, at least for now, the legitimate leader of Syria.

"The whole subject of political transition makes the Assad regime exceedingly nervous," Hof says. "The U.S. would do well to use whatever influence it has to keep this conference on subject."

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The conference is also one of the only public forums in which the U.S. is taking an active role, after repeatedly declining to get involved militarily in Syria.

"In a very real political sense, this is the only game in town," Hof says, stressing the importance for the U.S. to visibly back the Syrian National Coalition, or SNC.

"If, for example, the opposition delegation is left on its own to face a regime delegation that does not engage on the subject of political transition, if these talks take place in an atmosphere of continued human rights violations in Syria, one can see circumstances in which the opposition delegation itself might splinter."

Assad's Catch-22

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, the secretary general for the Syrian National Coalition said the group welcomed the conference and its goal to create a transitional governing body, or TGB, "where Assad and those with blood on their hands will have no role whatsoever."

Meanwhile, in an interview with Agence France-Presse released Tuesday, Assad all but declared his candidacy for re-election.