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Syria -- Descent Into Hell

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In order to get anything positive out of the Geneva-II conference, it is necessary to realize that the humanitarian and diplomatic initiatives pondered, will have to be backed up with a tangible military component. If not, the whole exercise risk going down as another futile attempt to stop the killing in Syria.

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On January 22, the so-called Geneva-II conference opened in Montreux, Switzerland. A perhaps not altogether fitting place for the initial opening ceremonies considering the glaring differences between the calm, quiet lakeside town in Europe's most peaceful country, and the violent chaos in the country being discussed.

Having overcome the hurdles of whom it to invite, it is still clear that some key actors are not present. That Iran (who was first invited by the UN and then disinvited) and the terrorist-designated groups Jabat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) were not invited is understandable; they are all very much part of the problem. But this has also meant that other opposition groups are not present, protesting the set-up and showing for the world to see the severe conflicts tearing the opposition apart.

Exacerbating the problem is also the fact that both the opposition and the Syrian regime has been busy making contrarian demands and stating 'irreversible' conditions for showing up. The oft-mentioned outcome of the first Geneva conference on Syria that the aim of this conference should be a transitional government established by mutual consent, is a goal seemingly impossible to achieve. This brings up the question what, if anything, it is possible to achieve at this stage? In order to have a conference at all, especially on a conflict this bloody and where the parties are so far apart, there must at least be some kind of mutual idea that, at a minimum, the first step towards a solution can be taken, and what those steps should be. But the Syrian regime feels strong enough to resist all compromises, and the opposition so weak and divided that they will resist and fear that compromises would only weakening them further. The fact that the organizers have been able to persuade the Syrian regime and representatives from the opposition to talk directly to each other will hardly change that.

It is therefore still unclear what exactly the goals of the conference are. It can be assessed that the regime in Damascus, backed up by Russia (a co-sponsor of the conference) will aim for a keeping the reins of power, even if there is an agreement on a transitory government (which is highly unlikely). There has, during the weeks leading up to the conference, been talk about creating safe-havens (for humanitarian aid to get through) and cease-fires, at least local ones. Both of these goals will be extremely difficult to achieve without heavy outside pressure, and so far the only pressure has been on the opposition with the regime fully backed by Russia, China and Iran.

To a degree, this conference is very much a limited, somewhat desperate attempt by the international community (especially the West, EU and the US) to at least create a process that may lead to a more robust policy towards stopping the Syrian war. A war that has gone on far too long and where western passivity and lack of political will has led to a situation where Assad has turned the tables on his enemies and, again with solid support from his allies, been able to come to Geneva in a much stronger position than before.

This is in many ways a self-inflicted failure on part of both the UN and the western powers. It also points to a structural weakness within the UN system, with a completely lame-duck Security Council whenever the permanent powers disagree.

But having said that, it is nevertheless essential that some form of UN-led process regarding Syria is initiated as soon as possible. The conflict has already become a regional headache for Syria's neighbors and if the UN (including the EU and the US) wants to maintain any kind of credibility it is high time for such a process. It will probably not crystallize out of the Geneva conference, but Geneva can be a beginning if the right moves are taken.

It can be assumed that some kind of process whereby decisions to continue to talk and hopefully act will come about. So much is at stake that a complete failure is not an option. What is needed therefore, is a process where the so-called "minority swing groups," i.e. representatives from the Alawites, Druze and Christian groups, will get a chance to be heard. Similarly, representatives from the Sunni "swing constituencies," i.e. representatives from the Syrian tribes, business-communities and other independents, are brought into the process. This can be done outside of the media spotlight and outside the frame of a Geneva conference. Such initiatives are already under way within some EU-countries but it is necessary that these initiatives and Track-II processes becomes more organized and complementary to UN-led negotiations.

But it is equally important that the military problems are tackled. There is no purely peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria any longer. And the deteriorating situation inside Syria, with stronger elements of militant jihadists, means that no solution is possible without cutting the violent militants down to size, as well as to stop the bombing from the regime. And this can only be done by military means backing up diplomatic initiatives.

In order to achieve an end (or at least the beginning of the end) on the killing inside Syria thus require simultaneously concrete actions; imposition of a no-fly zone to prevent the regime from continue air strikes against civilians (this should also include the prohibition of long-range artillery); increase the supply of arms to such groups identified as "moderate" or at least non- jihadist. The militant Islamists and jihadists in JN and ISIS will not volunteer to lay down their arms, so they must be forced to do so. The only way to do that is to strengthen anti-jihadist elements in the opposition.

The other option is a powerful military intervention from the outside, which would probably be faster and more efficient, but it is today unthinkable since no non-Syrian actor is willing to put up the resources that would be needed.

In addition, there must also be more effective sanctions so at least severely hamper the entry of weapons, material and men to the jihadists in JN and ISIS (and their smaller allies). This means that a process to support the more nationalist and moderate groups must be refined and streamlined so that, at least in the long term, these groups become strong enough to deal with the jihadists.
Finally, Syria's neighbors as well as other countries from where militant jihadists are coming must be better at preventing these groups of volunteers to enter the war (where they mostly join hard-core groups like ISIS and JN). Making it illegal to join terrorist-designated groups is one instrument to use. This will not stop every individual, but it will send a message that even if they make it back, there will be a price to pay.

If the Geneva-II conference is not going to be a failure, it is necessary that the processes described above are at least initiated during the conference.

The author is an Adjunct Scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington DC and a Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels.