The suspension of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva seemed to validate observers’ cynicism and pessimism in the run-up to the negotiations. The talks, naysayers argue, are pointless because Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad now has a chance at victory. “Assad is winning in Syria. Russia has shifted the balance of power there dramatically,” Joshua Landis and Steven Simon wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The real question is how much of Syria Assad can retake.”
The situation in Syria is indeed dire, and peace is a distant prospect. But much of the cynicism about the Geneva talks stems from false expectations about what they can achieve. Ending a civil war turned proxy war requires building peace one step at time, one actor at a time. The Geneva talks may be formally described as an effort to bring together the Syrian parties, but the most they can actually accomplish is getting key external actors involved in the civil war, namely the United States and Russia, on the same page. From the U.S. perspective, the point of the process should thus not be a settlement. Rather, it should be to create a rift between Russia and the Assad regime and to pull Russia closer to its own position. That would not by itself create peace, but it would be a significant and necessary step in the right direction.
It is possible to create such a rift, particularly since Russia does not seem to share the pessimists’ view that the Syrian civil war can be won through military means. According to press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the head of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) to Damascus to discuss the terms of Assad’s departure in late December 2015. Western intelligence sources cited in the press said that Assad rebuffed the powerful GRU director. For the United States, the GRU’s mission to Damascus should be a welcome sign that Moscow remains invested in a political process that produces a negotiated settlement to the
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