Children hang from the barrel of a tank,2012. (Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters)
In “Settling Syria,” we argued that the conflict in Syria would likely end in a negotiated settlement. The only question was when. It was thus not too surprising when, earlier this month, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, proposed holding an international conference with leaders from both sides of the conflict who would come together to form a transitional power-sharing government. That government, they hinted, could possibly include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Leaders from both the Syrian government and the opposition have responded with ambivalence. Assad has affirmed that he will not step down -- a precondition to talks for some opposition groups -- and that he is skeptical about the initiative’s chances for success, given the divisions within the opposition. Presumably, he is also reluctant to sit in a room with a United States that is plainly hostile to his remaining in power. Even so, he recently put forward five names for a possible negotiating team.
On the other side of the war, opposition leaders have questioned the very purpose of the conference. George Sabra, the leader of the Syrian National Council, one of the opposition factions, remarked that “it is not clear what this conference is about,” citing the lack of an agenda or a list of countries attending. For its part, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, another major faction, is set to meet in Istanbul this Thursday to discuss whether it will join in.
The concerns -- that the external actors will bring their own agendas to the table, that opposition leaders have made Assad’s stepping down a precondition for talks, and that the Syrian opposition is highly fragmented -- are valid. All the same, they are common problems. External actors always bring their own agendas. Furthermore, opposition groups routinely demand the ouster of the sitting leader. And by default, it