The major players in the nearly 3-year-old Syrian civil war have agreed to convene a peace conference in Geneva on Jan. 22. But it's still matter of debate as to whether the talks will succeed or even start on time.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told the Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that there's only a 50-50 chance that the talks, referred to as "Geneva II," will go ahead as planned. And success may largely depend on overcoming a few major sticking points:
Geneva Communique -- The conference in January will actually be the second major round of Geneva-based talks on Syria. Last summer, a group of world powers and Arab states met for "Geneva I" and issued the "Geneva Communique," a blueprint for a negotiated end to the war. It calls for Syrian government representatives and the opposition to come to a mutual agreement on a transition, which would almost certainly bring an end to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Most of the countries and groups involved in the Syria peace talks have agreed to use the Communique as a basis for discussions. But several important players have not formally committed to the blueprint, including the Syrian regime itself. The opposition snarked about that on Twitter Tuesday, telling Russia, a Syrian ally, that it "must get Assad to agree upon Geneva I's 6 Pts. Better get working Lavrov, you've got a lot to do."
Iran -- Syria's closest ally has said it will go to Geneva for the peace talks, if invited, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian Press TV on Tuesday that "participation of Iran in Geneva 2 is, in our view, an important contribution to the resolution of the problem." But, like the Syrian regime, Iran has not agreed to the Communique and has complained in the past about the expectation that it should have to. Until it does, the United States and the Syrian opposition say they oppose including Iran in the talks. Russia, meanwhile, wants Iran at the table.
Iran may have gained some goodwill from the United States that will help it land a seat at the talks, after it agreed on Sunday to a deal that slows its nuclear activity. But for now, the formal deadlock has not been solved.
Syrian National Coalition -- The Twitter feed of the Syrian National Coalition shows that the Western-backed opposition group is attending the peace talks, while the group's president, Ahmad al-Jarba, said it has not committed to attending. But either way, the group views the announcement of talks as a "positive step." In a statement on Tuesday, it said that the conference "will result in the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers." Right now, it seems likely the group will show up.
However, the SNC is still demanding that Assad play no part in the transition. "Bashar Assad or any of the criminals responsible for killing the Syrian people cannot be part of any transitional body and cannot have any role in Syria's political future," the group wrote on Tuesday. That means the regime would have to find people who can represent the Syrian government but are not viewed as complicit in Assad's actions.
Free Syrian Army -- The rebels' formal military leadership has already said that it will not attend the peace talks. Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that "we, as a military and revolutionary force, will not participate in the conference." He also vowed to continue fighting while the talks are held. "What concerns us is getting needed weapons for our fighters," he said.
The moderate, Western-approved group may have limited impact on the talks, as it appears to have lost influence and momentum to Islamist militias. Those groups, like the newly formed Islamic Front, are largely ignoring the existence of the talks altogether. And even if there's a negotiated solution, it's possible it would be rejected by Islamist groups who back Assad's violent overthrow and the establishment of a Sharia-based government.
With all of these fundamental issues still unresolved, policymakers are largely treating Monday's announcement as the first of many steps toward the negotiating table. As a spokesman for President Barack Obama said recently, "There are many challenges ahead and no one should underestimate the difficulties."