Jan. 22 marks the start of "Geneva II," the much-anticipated international conference intended to bring a measure of political stability to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The event is supposed to bring together the Syrian government and its adversaries in what many hope will be a settlement of that country's nearly three-year-old civil war. Yet there is little reason to expect that this conference can actually bring peace to Syria or its equally-troubled neighborhood, for at least four reasons.
The first is Russia. Although Moscow and Washington are jointly sponsoring the conference, the two have vastly differing ideas about the ultimate outcome. Russia has long charged that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad must be part of the political solution, while President Obama has insisted that Assad "must go." Further, Russia keeps charging that the Syrian rebels – whom it considers terrorists – have not actually committed themselves to appear, and that the U.S. lacks the clout to bring them to the table. That effectively leaves Russia's proxy, the Assad regime, as the center of political gravity in the discussion, at least as far as the Kremlin is concerned.
Moreover, Russia continues to flood Syria with all manner of weapons, and clearly stands behind Iran and its terrorist proxies, like Hezbollah, in their attempt to shape the operating environment in the Ba'athist state. In other words, while Moscow may have cooperated in getting rid of the Syrian government's chemical weapons, it has no interest in abetting U.S. interests in the Middle East – or anywhere else, for that matter. The notion that Russia, because of its diplomatic engagement on the Syria front, somehow is not determined to preserve its standing or that of its allies, is contradictory to the facts on the ground and to recent history.
Then there is Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry has intimated that Iran will play a role in the negotiations. And although the U.N. has now barred Iran from a formal seat at the table, the Iranian regime is bound to cast a large shadow over the discussions.
The Iranian regime has played a key role in perpetuating Assad's brutality against his own people. Over the past two years, Iran has flooded Syria with weapons and command personnel, and incited its terrorist proxy Hezbollah to send up to 15,000 armed troops into the country in support of Assad's regime. Iran's intentions revolve around creating a pro-Tehran crescent in the Middle East – one deeply inimical to American interests. These contributions hardly deserve the reward of determining Syria's future, but the Iranian government, even without a formal seat at the diplomatic table, could well steer the direction and the tenor of the talks, much to the detriment of this peace process, and others.
The third reason for pessimism in the run-up to "Geneva II" is that the Syrian conflict remains a civil war conducted by and among ethnic and religious sects on both sides. In almost every such war, there is no common ground upon which to build a new government; more often than not the objectives of the two sides are and remain utterly irreconcilable. So it is likely to be in Syria, where the mantra of regime and opposition forces alike remains "rule or die."
Finally, Syria has failed to meet the deadline for removing all of its chemical weapons from the country. That in and of itself isn't surprising. Assad – as well as his sponsors in Tehran and Moscow – must surely know that a comprehensive dismantlement of Syria's arsenal would make Assad dispensable. Conversely, all the parties surely know that a drawn-out dismantlement process would ensure the survivability of the Syrian regime.
All these specific problems compound a general one: that negotiating settlements to civil wars is often an excruciatingly long process, even when it is successful. These factors should induce a sense of caution concerning expectations for what "Geneva II" can truly bring about.
Stephen Blank is senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.