01/22/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Why Assad Has the Upper Hand in the Syria Peace Talks


It would be wonderful were the Geneva peace conference on Syria to lay a foundation, however tentative, for winding down a civil war that's approaching the three-year mark. The carnage has consumed some 130,000 lives, at least half of them civilians. Moreover, 2.4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries, and another 6.5 million have been displaced within Syria itself -- that's almost 40 percent of Syria's population.

Add to this the children who have lost one or both parents, the destruction of essential infrastructure, the outbreaks, actual or potential, of diseases (polio, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid among them), and the scarcity of basic necessities (blocking access to food has been a key tactic of Bashar al-Assad's government), and what's evident is that Syria is being consumed by a catastrophe. Syrians will feel its malign effects for years to come. So will people in adjacent countries, particularly Lebanon and Iraq, where Syria's sectarian war has aggravated Sunni-Shi'a conflict,

So yes, it would be good if something substantial were to result from what's known as the "Geneva II" peace talks.

But despite the efforts of the Obama administration (and the Persian Gulf states, major European governments, and Turkey) to orchestrate the negotiations, not much will be achieved in Geneva to reduce significantly, let alone eliminate, the horrors that pass for life in Syria.

For openers, there's a deep divide between the Syrian groups in exile, which claim to be the authentic voice of Syrians and have been recognized as such by numerous governments, and the most effective fighting forces within Syria.

The former are organized as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (aka the Syrian National Coalition, SNC) and have established a provisional government -- based in Turkey -- as well as a Supreme Military Council. But no matter the rhetoric of the SNC and its backers in Washington and elsewhere, other opposition groups bear the brunt of the fighting and are thus more consequential to its political future.

The pressure the United States has put on the SNC to join Geneva II has split an already creaky coalition. When the SNC voted Saturday on whether to participate in the talks, about half its members refused to vote, voted no, or abstained. The dissenters worried, with good reason, that sitting down with Assad's representatives would further erode their standing within Syria and that the negotiations would not achieve the SNC's main goals, which include removing Assad and forming a transitional government that includes the opposition.

Aside from its shallow roots in Syria, the SNC operates on a shoestring budget and has precious little firepower, despite support from the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. Last month, the United States ceased even non-lethal military aid because of concerns that it would end up in the hands of radical Islamists, particularly those affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Thus the SNC comes to the talks politically divided and lacking the money and weaponry needed to shape the battlefield. In short, it won't have much leverage against Assad. Meanwhile, his forces have been making some headway in recent months, even though large chunks of Syria, especially much of the Sunni-majority north and the Kurdish regions in the northeast, remain outside the regime's control and its writ runs mainly in Syria's central and coastal areas.

The armed opposition within Syria consists of a bewildering array of groups with varied agendas. Some of the most potent ones have united as the Islamic Front, a collection of militias that, while committed to the creation of a shari'a-based state in Syria, is not necessarily of one mind or even clear on that what that means in practice.

Syria's Islamist resistance groups are far from monolithic. The IF, a disparate ensemble rather than an organization with a central leadership, has fought the Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and opposes its transnational agenda. But both organizations, along with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, have publicly rejected the authority and aims of the SNC, viewing it as an coalition of expatriates removed from Syria's reality and beholden to foreign powers. The IF, ISIL, and Al-Nusra have spurned the Geneva negotiations; but their fighters are among the most effective, and that reduces the significance of Geneva II because whatever agreements are reached won't be binding on the most powerful resistance groups.

Assad will never be able to reunify Syria under his control: the country's most probable future is, alas, a chaotic, violent balkanization. But he has managed to retain his societal bases of support, which extend beyond his Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot, and include portions of the Sunni majority, plus minorities such as Christians and Druze. Those among the non-Alawite communities who have entered into a marriage of convenience with Assad have done so largely because they fear the radical Islamists in the armed opposition and consider him the lesser of two evils

And despite a number of defections from the regime, there's no sign that the ruling Ba'ath Party, the armed forces, and the intelligence services, Assad's essential institutional sources of support, are about to abandon him.

Externally, he has the fulsome backing -- in money, arms, and on-the-scene advisers -- of Iran, and of Tehran's Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, which has poured its fighters into Syria.

With the battlefield momentum having moved his way; the SNC divided and short on money and arms; and the internal and external opposition split, Assad, despite his many problems, holds a stronger hand than his opponents.

So there's no chance that Assad will step aside, especially because neither Iran, nor Russia, which wants to preserve the regime to the extent possible and is focused on preventing Syria from becoming a bastion for radical Islamic groups, will pressure him to quit.

With the United States and Europe increasingly worried about the strength of the Islamist groups in Syria, notably ISIL and Al-Nusra, and the removal of Syria's chemical weapons stocks well underway, Assad may be calculating that his political position will improve. He may be right.

Even limited successes at Geneva, such as guarantees to permit the distribution of humanitarian aid in war zones and a commitment to keep talking, could end up weakening the SNC further by deepening its internal divisions and widening the gulf between it and the IF.

To establish itself as a major force, the SNC must produce a few big results, but its weakness will make that impossible. In the eyes of its critics, it will have supped with the devil and gotten little more than crumbs.

The Syrian people deserve a better outcome from Geneva II. But given the prevailing political and military realities they're unlikely to get it. Instead, Syria's war will extend well beyond the three-year mark.

This article originally appeared in RealClear World on January 21 and is cross-posted here with minor modifications.