Peace Negotiations: Fish or Cut Bait?

The Syrian opposition delegation at the Geneva peace talks faces a cruel dilemma: hang on in the hope that its willingness to commence ceasefire discussions can produce genuine relief for hundreds of thousands of its constituents; or quit in disgust as Russia doubles-down.
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The Syrian opposition delegation at the Geneva peace talks faces a cruel dilemma: hang on in the hope that its willingness to commence ceasefire discussions can produce genuine relief for hundreds of thousands of its constituents; or quit in disgust as Russia - one of the "co-conveners" of the Vienna peace process that produced the Geneva talks - doubles-down on an air campaign that slaughters civilians and solidifies the position of its homicidal client. The strong inclination of the opposition is to continue to fish. How long, however, before Moscow and a compliant West force it to cut bait?

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, sensing the unsustainable nature of a thoroughly deplorable situation, has announced a suspension of the talks until February 25. This defers the decision point for the opposition. But it bodes not at all well for Syrian civilians.

One hopes that Secretary of State John Kerry can persuade Russia and Iran to force their joint client to lift sieges, stop barrel (and other forms of) bombing, and release tens of thousands of political prisoners: beginning with women and children. Indeed, one prays that Kerry can convince Moscow to adopt a role consistent with its status of co-convener of the Vienna process launched last October. If he cannot - and assuming the Obama administration brings nothing to the table beyond wishes and words - Syria will continue its catastrophic descent toward informal partition between ISIL (ISIS, Daesh, or the Islamic State) and the Assad regime; the bifurcation of a country in smoldering ruin, one that will progressively empty itself onto its neighbors and Western Europe.

More to the point in terms of here and now, business as usual by Russia and the regime may force the so-called peace talks themselves to collapse. Already the head of the regime's delegation - supported by Russia - has indicated his unwillingness to deal with the opposition delegation as currently constituted. But the more salient issue has less to do with the viewpoint of a functionary fronting for mass homicide than it does with the ability of the opposition to sustain its presence in Geneva in the face of ongoing atrocities inflicted on its constituents inside Syria.

For the opposition this is a real dilemma. On the one hand it has the strongest of all motivations to persist: the hope that ceasefire arrangements it might negotiate can spare its constituents - at least some of them - from ongoing mass murder, whether by bombing, starvation, or pestilence. The opposition feels obligated to try: an obligation imposed by its all-but-absolute certainty that Washington will do nothing to protect Syrian civilians inside Syria from the Assad regime and its external enablers.

Yet if the atrocities persist and the regime - riding high on the shoulders of Russian aircraft and Iranian-assembled militias - declines to engage substantively on ceasefire arrangements, what is the opposition to do? Alienate its constituency by continuing to shuttle between its hotel and the Palais des Nations as a useful prop in someone else's show? Or pack up and leave, courting the cold contempt of UN officials and an American secretary of state while abandoning - at least in Geneva - any hope of reaching life-saving ceasefire arrangements?

Russia and the regime are hardly unaware of the cruel dilemma faced by the opposition delegation. They have created it. Western officials routinely decry this situation, often in stark and eloquent terms. But Moscow has taken its measure of the West and has come to the same conclusion the Syrian opposition has reached: beyond the expressions of regret there is nothing. Russia calculates it may do as it pleases, which - for reasons that transcend the smoking pit that is Syria - is for its client to survive and for the West to curry his favor in the battle against ISIL.

This is truly an extraordinary state of affairs, one that will amaze students of diplomacy for decades to come. It is understandable - if disastrous - that the Obama administration wishes to stand clear of Syria and the debris storm associated with it. Less understandable is its willingness to stimulate Russian recklessness by creating an oceanic gap between word and deed and by enabling Moscow to buy time for a military campaign by granting it "co-convener" status in a peace process that has been accompanied by Russian military escalation since its very start.

An accomplished scholar and Syria expert - Professor Steven Heydemann - has expressed in a message to this writer the fear that the proceedings in Geneva will become "a zombie negotiation - impossible to kill even as it wreaks havoc." Indeed, the palpable danger exists that process for the sake of process, testimony to the unwillingness of the West to defend itself in Syria, will provide cover for continuing slaughter and a hemorrhage of humanity - some of it terrified, some of it simply disgusted - bound for Europe. Nothing would please Moscow more, except perhaps for its client to emerge as the sole alternative to ISIL.

Russia sees no contradiction between being a peace process co-convener and a combatant on the side of an extended family fully invested in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The West may see a contradiction, but feels no need - much less obligation - to do anything about it. Thus it falls entirely on the least empowered actor in this sorry drama, the Syrian opposition, to try to make something positive in spite of the bloody-mindedness and faint-heartedness of those occupying permanent positions on the UN Security Council. To fish or cut bait will, perhaps starting again on February 25, be the question du jour for this opposition so long as the Assad regime and Russia see utility in killing Syrian civilians.

Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.

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