Winning the Peace By Failing in Geneva: How to Work the Syria Negotiations

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 to maintain the status quo, rather than to spark a real transition. But that interpretation is off the mark.

In fact, Russia is serious about Geneva II, even if it has a very different perspective on what it might achieve there. For Russia, the meeting is a vehicle to facilitate a political settlement among Syrians, not an opportunity for outside actors to negotiate the end of the Assad regime. Moscow insisted that this be a guiding principle in the Geneva communiqué, the July 2012 document that governs Geneva II, and its policy and actions haven’t changed since. Above all else, Moscow wants to avoid legitimizing a U.S.-led forced removal of a sitting government or an attempt to pick winners in an internal conflict. Either development, Russia believes, would set an extremely dangerous precedent — both for the region and, potentially, for itself.

The September U.S.-Russia deal on Syria’s chemical weapons proves the point. Moscow agreed to an arrangement that deprives Assad of his chemical weapons, which was a major concession considering that it had, just weeks before, rejected far less ambitious proposals. The reason for the turnaround? Russia believed that the United States was on the verge of military strikes, and recognized that the chemical weapons agreement could prevent that. As a nice bonus, it also got to advance one of the few global public goods that Russia cares about: nonproliferation of WMD, particularly to extremist groups.

Additionally, Moscow has signaled in several ways that its policy is not driven by concern about Assad’s place in Syria’s future. Senior officials have said as much, and Russia voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolutions 2042 and 2118, both of which called for a “political transition” in Syria. By supporting the Geneva communiqué, which requires that the opposition sign off on the composition of a future Syrian leadership, Moscow has already implicitly endorsed a transition that does not include Assad himself.

If Russia’s actions were driven by a desire to keep Assad in power at all costs, it would be giving the regime boatloads of mortars, artillery, and tanks, and sending uniformed military advisers (all of which Iran is in fact doing). Instead, its arms sales are largely confined to sophisticated air-defense systems, which are useless against the rebels. The terms of these deals are commercial — cash on delivery — rather than military assistance.

If the United States recognizes that Russia’s objectives are about the process, not the outcomes of a settlement, and acts that way, the negotiations could produce closer U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria. Washington needs to let the talks unfold in a way that demonstrates to Moscow that Assad and his cronies — rather than the opposition, U.S. policy, or other states in the region — are the main obstacle to peace and stability.

That might not be too difficult to manage. Assad seems to have no intention of negotiating a deal or countenancing any kind of power-sharing. But the Kremlin has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until Assad demonstrates his bad faith by publicly rejecting a settlement that Russia accepts, Moscow will continue to regard him as a part of the solution, not the source of the problem.

There is some precedent for such a change in Russian policy. In 2009, Tehran publicly rejected a Russian offer to store Iran’s enriched uranium — a deal that Iran had accepted days earlier. Angered by Iran’s betrayal, Russia supported tough new UN sanctions against Iran in June 2010.

If talks fail because Assad rejects a reasonable deal that all the other parties endorse, Moscow will begin to see that its desire for both stability in the region and avoiding coercive regime change requires working more closely with the United States.

Similarly, if Geneva II fails because Assad rejects a reasonable deal that all the other parties endorse, Moscow will begin to see that its desire for both stability in the region and avoiding coercive regime change requires working more closely with the United States. It might then pressure Assad to accept a transition. It could also work with the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council to address the humanitarian situation in Syria, particularly by seeking approval for UN agencies to enter Syria through border crossings not controlled by Damascus, which could bring desperately needed help to hundreds of thousands of people in opposition-held areas.


Regardless of what happens at Geneva II, Washington should be developing a parallel, regional track for peace in Syria. Together, the United States and Russia should push for negotiations that convene the regional supporters of the opposition and the regime, without the Syrian parties present. This would be a half-step back from the face-to-face talks between the opposition and the regime envisioned at Geneva II. We call it Geneva 1.5.

A regional track is needed because the Syrian civil war has become a proxy war — principally between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but with important roles played by Qatar, Turkey, and Iraq. (The United States and Russia are also involved in this proxy war, albeit to a lesser extent than the regional actors.) The record on resolving such proxy wars is clear. Until the main external supporters reach some sort of accommodation, they will continue to fund, arm, and otherwise give their proxies hope of victory. This unhappy dynamic played out frequently during the Cold War, lasting decades in Angola, Guatemala, and Vietnam.

Thus far, no international mediation efforts on Syria have explicitly sought to address the role of regional actors and the conflicts among them. The first Geneva meeting excluded Iran and Saudi Arabia, two key players, and the meeting’s resulting communiqué focused on the principles of civil war resolution rather than on the particulars of this conflict. The purpose of a Geneva 1.5 conference would be to facilitate eventual political resolution within Syria by cutting off the activity of regional actors that fuels the conflict.

Such negotiations will not be easy. The Syrian civil war is only one battlefield in a much broader struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bringing these two archrivals to an accommodation on Syria will tax even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s legendary perseverance. Both would have to be convinced that they have little hope of realizing their maximalist goals. Then the United States and Russian mediators would seek a formula that can accommodate their core interests in Syria’s future and guarantee mutual restraint. That formula would not determine who rules Syria, but it would enable the Syrian parties themselves to negotiate without fear that outside actors would sabotage any agreement.

The regional players should be ready to come to grips with the fact that outright victory is impossible. For Iran, the Syrian conflict is a black hole for its already stretched capabilities. Its involvement in the conflict has damaged its reputation in the Arab world, fueled sectarian violence elsewhere, and led to an upswing in Sunni extremism in Syria. Tehran may therefore accept a settlement that protects its most important interests in Syria: namely, ensuring its connection with Hezbollah and Lebanon and preventing Damascus from being controlled by a puppet regime of its regional rivals.

As for the Saudis, the extremism emanating from Syria could pose a threat to the House of Saud itself. Further, their proxies in Syria are at best holding the line as the Syrian regime continues to demonstrate its resilience. The Saudis simply do not have the capacity to win a long proxy war against Iran in Syria. They might, therefore, settle for a power-sharing arrangement that would give them some influence with a Syrian transitional regime. Even that scenario would represent a substantial improvement in Saudi Arabia’s standing in Syria prior to the conflict.

A group of nations that included Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States did come together recently to discuss ways to provide humanitarian relief to the many thousands of innocents facing starvation in Syria. And even that was a major breakthrough. The United States and Russia could build on this momentum to push for Geneva 1.5.

The United States and Russia are well positioned to lead Geneva 1.5 together — regardless of how Geneva II goes. Both have a common interest in preventing Islamist extremists from gaining more ground in Syria. And each has its own strengths and regional connections. The United States can nudge Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into a more constructive role in the negotiations, and Russia might be able to do the same with Iran.

Kerry recently hinted that the United States may consider allowing Iranian involvement in Geneva II in some partial capacity, but full Iranian participation in the talks remains conditioned on Tehran’s acceptance of the principles of the Geneva communiqué. Washington would be better served by first getting Iran to the Geneva 1.5 table, because an accommodation with its regional adversaries, rather than engagement in an intra-Syrian political process, offers the best chance of changing Iranian behavior in Syria.

It will not be easy. But accepting the current debate in Washington about Geneva will essentially guarantee that U.S. efforts will accomplish little. One meeting in late January is unlikely to bring peace to Syria. But with a dual-track approach that positions Assad to block a settlement at Geneva II and involves regional actors in a parallel Geneva 1.5 negotiation, the United States might just be able to create momentum for peace in Syria.