Peace conferences, as a general historical rule, are convened because the warring parties are looking for a way to end the conflict. Not so at tomorrow's Geneva Syrian "peace conference." While diplomats from over 30 countries fine tune their diplomatic fiddles the industrial strength mayhem and murder in Syria is unrelenting.
The conference's see-saw prelude symbolizes how hard the mere act of getting the delegates to meet had become, what with the serially divided Syrian opposition threatening to be a no-show if (more like a thousand "ifs", and the weak and meek UN SecGen Ban Ki Moon extending and then rescinding his personal invitation to Iran to sit at the table).
Leave it to the UN to almost blow up the most important effort in years to get a Syrian peace process under way. When Iran refused to publicly adopt the so-called "Geneva Communique" (e.g., the ground rules governing the goals of the conference), the U.S. and Assad's opponents rightfully pulled the rug on the invite.
Most attendees, but not all, have the best of intentions even if their already meager goals are severely constrained by the cruel realities on the ground.
Six million Syrians are homeless... SIX MILLION! And over one hundred thousand have lost their lives.
Assad's brutality has enabled Al Qaeda to conveniently transform a civil war against his regime into the first full-blown Sunni-Shiite war in centuries, ironically bequeathing to Assad the dubious distinction of becoming the bulwark against Sunni Islamic extremism. He poured barrels of gasoline on the fire and now wants credit for being the firefighter!
The battlefield that the Geneva meeting is intended to pacify is overrun by warring gangs, rebels, terrorists, military deserters and an endless stream of self-anointed guardians of Islam (Sunni and Shiite) fueling the furor with fatwas and funds.
No one knows exactly what is happening on any given day. The patchwork of government and rebel controlled territory shifts each day back and forth depending on the magnitude of atrocities being committed by one side against the other.
In northern Syria, the Al Qaeda branch called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is butchering anyone who rejects its uber Islamist doctrine, including more secularist rebel forces who have seen ISIS hijack their rebellion. Aleppo, Syria's once second largest city, has been carpet-bombed into submission by Assad's sinister barrel bombs (which contain hundreds of pounds of explosives and shrapnel) which have become Assad's substitute for his forfeited chemical weapons.
Assad and his Iranian and Russian patrons are outwitting and out bombing their opponents. In a verbal message to conferees, Assad boasted he may run again for president -- no empty bravado given the tide of war that has shifted more and more in his favor.
Alas, all of the diplomatic energy expended to bring the Syrian regime and its opponents to the negotiating table must be channeled toward alleviating the humanitarian suffering.
So what can be accomplished in the short term?
1. Localized cease-fires to enable safe passage and evacuation of civilians caught in the fighting.
2. Authorization by all warring parties to permit humanitarian relief organizations to deliver relief supplies that are internationally supervised for delivery into needy hands and not stolen as contraband or blackmail.
3. Some form of international mediating teams to enforce standstill agreements and oversee cease-fires.
4. Leaning on Russia to compel Assad to stop his tortuous "cheat and retreat" policy whereby relief convoys are authorized to leave government held territory and then revoking physical passage into rebel held territory.
Notice that nothing I recommend, or what may be on the agenda in Geneva, will bring about an immediate cease fire across Syria.
The sad reality is that neither Assad nor his divided adversaries have any intention to lay down their weapons anytime soon. "Geneva" is no great breakthrough. Rather, it reflects the depths of international impotence. At best, what may emerge could have some immediate impact on a very small percentage of Syria's suffering population. I will reluctantly settle for that now so long as the conference does not collapse into recrimination.
But that will still be too late for hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians who are unable to escape to a safe haven in the weeks to come. I would like for the U.S. to show the terrible videos that have been smuggled out of Syria detailing the mass atrocities. Perhaps that may light a fire under the attendees to accomplish something tangible.