Later this month, the United States, Russia, key regional states, and other members of the international community will attend the Geneva II peace conference. In Washington, the debate rages on between the skeptics, who dismiss the conference as a hopeless endeavor, and the optimists, who see it as a genuine peace process that could resolve the Syrian crisis. Both sides are missing the point.
It is hard to dispute the skeptics’ argument that the time is not right for a comprehensive agreement between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting his regime. Neither party is ready to give up on victory, and both sides’ regional sponsors continue to support, fund, and arm them. But peace is not the right benchmark by which to judge Geneva II. Historically, ending civil wars has involved long and difficult negotiations that, at best, very gradually create the conditions for lasting peace.
Yes, Geneva II will likely fail to produce a settlement to the Syrian conflict. But the United States should take steps to ensure it fails in a way that furthers peace. At the same time, the United States and Russia can improve the prospects for peace by establishing a round of negotiations among the regional sponsors of the warring Syrian parties.
Rather than an opportunity to achieve peace, Geneva II is an occasion to drive a wedge between Moscow and Assad and thus promote greater cooperation between the United States and Russia on the Syrian conflict. Such cooperation is key to both the alleviation of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and to a negotiated end to the war. At the talks then, the U.S. goal should be to create the conditions whereby Assad openly rejects a deal that all other parties, including Russia, endorse.
Achieving such an outcome will be exceptionally difficult. But it need not be impossible, as long as the United States understands Russian objectives. The Russian approach to Geneva is widely viewed in Washington as an attempt