The United States is back in on Syria’s peace talks. After a hands-off, barely engaged interlude early in the Trump administration, Washington has recommitted to the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process. Geneva—and the elusive “political solution” it promises—is seen as the key to connecting America’s disjointed policy projects in Syria into a strategic whole.
It won’t work. Geneva is still structurally broken. And to the extent that Geneva has any prospects, it is as something transformed and unrecognizable—a Russian process, remade in Russia’s image, leading to a Russian solution.
American involvement in Syria is at its conceptual end. The U.S.-led coalition has hit the geographic limits of its military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. America’s tripartite “de-escalation” agreement in Syria’s southwest corner has gone nearly as far as it can politically, without getting into uncomfortable sub-national deal-making. There is no obvious next step, in either instance, that would restore semi-normalcy in these areas, or that would allow Washington to scale down its commitment while guaranteeing minimum U.S. interests. And so Washington has returned to the Geneva process, a sort of panacea for American policy incoherence.
America’s role in Syria—including the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Syria’s post-Islamic State northeast, to some extent—now depends on a comprehensive political solution in Geneva, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. “We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last month.
But the renewed focus on Geneva only clarifies the unreality of Washington and its allies’ aims in Syria, and the disconnect between those ends and their real policy means. Washington is committed to an intricate, Fabergé political compromise in Syria that cannot be produced through any process, certainly not Geneva. Russia, on the other hand, is using a complex, diverse set of means in service of a single unsophisticated objective: an internationally legitimated victory for Russia’s Syrian regime ally. It is working both through and around Geneva, reshaping Geneva as it goes.
American diplomats and their foreign counterparts are currently marooned in Geneva, struggling to give substance and meaning to a negotiating round that is scheduled to run until December 15. They will fail.
Geneva might yet yield something, but if it does, that something will be Russian. Washington will have to decide whether to take it or leave it.
America’s Recommitment to Geneva
White House officials have been making media rounds, briefing news outlets on America’s new post-Islamic State diplomatic push. Key to their strategic case is their contention that, contra the prevailing media narrative, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has not won Syria’s war.
U.S. officials involved in Syria policy made a similar argument to me in October. They pushed back hard on the Syrian regime and its allies’ “mythology” that Assad is triumphant and that the international community should acquiesce to an Assad reconquista. No one side has won in Syria, they told me. What the regime’s Russian and Iranian allies have done is prevent Assad from losing, they said, not deliver him to victory. Assad is still weak and isolated, and if Syria is going to be rebuilt and avoid cyclical convulsions of insurgency and violence, it needs a political resolution leading to a transition.
“The regime still controls less than half of Syria’s population, especially if you count refugees who’ve voted with their feet,” one official told me. “It must negotiate.”
Absent a negotiated transition, these officials told me, Assad’s Syria will stay broken. They wanted to impress on Assad’s allies—specifically, Russia—that without a credible political process leading to a transition, there will be no international legitimacy for a post-war political order and no Western contributions to Syria’s reconstruction. Assad will be an indefinite political and economic drag on his sponsors. “Is the cost of holding onto Assad worth it? Or are they willing to ditch him?” one said.
“This push for a political transition is about political ideas,” he told me, “but also strategic realities.”
Geneva participants—including Syrians and America’s allies—have complained to me about the lack of U.S. “seriousness” about talks. Washington now seems ready to get substantially more serious about Geneva. But Geneva had not stalled because of a lack of American belief and will, but rather because Geneva itself is basically unworkable.
Geneva is built around an adversarial regime–opposition binary that is, for a negotiated solution, a dead end. This latest round of talks is “Geneva 8.” The two sides have yet to agree to sit down face-to-face.
The Syrian opposition representatives negotiating in Geneva have only a tenuous relationship to the divided opposition on the ground inside Syria. They lack the same imperative to make live-or-die compromises as someone in, say, Damascus’s besieged East Ghouta suburbs, who needs to negotiate a conditional surrender to save his children’s lives. They will not cosign the opposition’s defeat.
The regime, meanwhile, is totally intransigent. Damascus is willing to send a disempowered negotiating delegation to Geneva and do the absolute bare minimum to avoid alienating Russia, but no more. It has never demonstrated any willingness to engage in good faith with the opposition, whom it dismisses as terrorists and proxy slaves. And why would it? Whatever U.S. officials claim, the regime is winning, even if it has yet to win outright. It will not negotiate itself into losing, not now. Even when its survival was precarious in 2013 and 2014, it refused to talk seriously. There is no apparent means of changing its calculus, no combination of military, diplomatic, or economic pressure that can induce it to negotiate its own suicide.
The United States has unilaterally disarmed its main coercive weapon in Syria, a covert program to arm and train Syria’s rebels, but even that did not obviously affect the regime’s willingness to compromise. Promises of reconstruction funding will not change the regime’s outlook, nor are they likely to prompt the Russians to reveal a new ability, or inclination, to compel regime concessions.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has tried to dilute this toxic regime–opposition mix by expanding the involvement of non-aligned Syrian civil society, as well as by orienting talks around four thematic “baskets” instead of an indivisible, compromise-proof political transition. But the purpose of Geneva is a regime–opposition deal on a transition—the process is still poisoned.
That regime–opposition binary no longer even reflects the main political cleavage on the ground. With the conclusion of the military campaign against the Islamic State, most of the country has been divided between the regime and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces, which do not fit into the Geneva binary and have no clear stake in this process.
In theory, Geneva could produce a settlement framework basically unrelated to the reality inside Syria, and into which ground actors and dynamics could be incorporated after the fact. But regime and opposition delegations would still have to sign on, and they won’t. Their priorities are fundamentally misaligned.
Geneva was a non-starter earlier this year, and it is a non-starter now. No amount of American enthusiasm will change that.
Geneva is stuck in place, and reinvesting in Geneva just means the United States is stuck with it. Russia, meanwhile, is figuring out how to move forward.
As Washington has pivoted to Syria’s political process, so too has Russia. But Russia has a more flexible, adaptive understanding of that process, joined to a more plausible objective. What political progress is now happening is driven by Russia, but it is progress towards a Russian end.
Russia is invested in Geneva, but it is also involved in a proliferating assortment of parallel processes. They include, at a minimum: “de-escalation”-focused talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, with co-guarantors Iran and Turkey; within that theoretical de-escalation framework, at least four distinct negotiation tracks covering four de-escalation zones, each with an incompatible, mutually hostile set of other state guarantors; local “reconciliation” talks managed by Russian military personnel working from Hmeimim Airbase on Syria’s coast; and, lately, a “Syrian National Dialogue Conference” to be held at some future point in the Russian city of Sochi.
These processes are proceeding in parallel to Russia’s military campaign in support of the Assad regime, which has brought the regime back from near-collapse and whose results necessarily inform any political negotiation. Russian president Vladimir Putin, visiting Hmeimim Monday, ordered preparations for a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. But Russia has announced similar troop withdrawals twice before, and this move seems not to portend a real Russian disengagement from the Syrian issue, including the political track.
These overlapping processes all have a single denominator and common feature: Russia. Thanks to an overgrown diplomatic capacity—the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is buttressed by the Russian military in Hmeimim, which immerses itself in politics in a way that the U.S. military does not—Russia seems capable of managing all these tracks simultaneously. It plays out one process or another as needed, and, when appropriate, generates new ones. Russia can afford for an initiative to fail. It’s improvising.
These parallel processes are typically seen by alarmed Geneva participants as attempts to displace Geneva. It was Astana talks that seem to have shocked Geneva back to life earlier this year, as UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura and Geneva backers scrambled to prevent Russia from migrating key political issues to Astana. Russia’s announcement of the Sochi congress in October was met with similar distress.
But Astana, Sochi, and other Russian initiatives seem not to be attempts to totally supplant Geneva, which remains the only venue for concluding a UN-sponsored, internationally legitimate agreement to end Syria’s war. Rather, Russia describes these processes as means to facilitate Geneva and a political settlement in line with UNSCR 2254, the December 2015 UN Security Council resolution that gives Geneva its mandate. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, for example, said Russia was confident the Sochi dialogue would “help implement the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on a political settlement in Syria and help advance the negotiating process under the aegis of the UN in Geneva.” And it’s not obvious this Russian framing is wrong.
The Geneva process is premised on UNSCR 2254. But because Geneva is incapacitated by its intractable regime–opposition split and the irresolvable question of transition and regime change, talks cannot move forward or address any of the specific process steps 2254 outlines, including a ceasefire, a new constitution, and elections. What Russia has done is externalize the component elements of UNSCR 2254 to its satellite processes, which, without an impossible mandate to deliver a comprehensive political solution and transition, can achieve more targeted results.
UNSCR 2254 is actually an empty vessel, a sort of political cipher. It identifies benchmarks that need to be satisfied, but says little about how they fit together or what sort of “transition” they are ultimately meant to produce. 2254’s steps themselves are basically value-neutral. Ceasefires (or “de-escalations”), a constitution, elections—these are all void of any real political substance. Depending on the context or intent, they can be deployed to basically any end.
De-escalation in western Syria has been a means for the regime and its allies to focus on recapturing Syria’s east, and, in at least two of the four de-escalation zones in the west, move towards the sort of negotiated rebel surrenders the regime has termed “reconciliations.”
Elections similarly have no inherent politics. De Mistura and now the Americans have emphasized elections as key to satisfying the requirements of 2254 and, at least for the Americans, removing Assad. But without a safe, free atmosphere for democratic institution-building, party development, and political expression, the naked mechanism of elections seems almost certain to yield an Assad victory and re-legitimate his rule over an unreconstructed Syria. Elections do not obviously entail a positive political outcome.
Russia is manufacturing UNSCR 2254’s individual parts so that they can be shipped, whole, to Geneva and assembled into a political solution with the imprimatur of the United Nations and international community. Russia still needs Geneva and the legitimacy of UNSCR 2254. A political settlement concluded outside Geneva/2254 wouldn’t exorcise international objections to the Syrian regime’s legitimacy and release the full scope of reconstruction funding, and there likely isn’t sufficient international will to produce a new Security Council resolution and legal framework that could replace 2254. But Russia can try to infuse Geneva and UNSCR 2254 with as much Russian-ness as possible.
Other actors, in attempting to keep Geneva relevant and preempt Russian attempts to re-engineer the process, are themselves remaking it to suit Russian preferences. De Mistura’s current focus on elections and Syria’s constitution is both guided by UNSCR 2254 and, by all appearances, a reflection of special Russian interest in these processes. In particular, the constitution is a Russian project; Russia previously attempted to introduce a ready-made constitution in Astana, and Sochi may be a forum to ratify another prefabricated constitution. Saudi Arabia recently convened the intra-opposition “Riyadh II” conference, which also seems to have done Russia’s work for it. Riyadh II remade the Syrian opposition’s Geneva negotiating body in a way that expanded the representation of some Moscow-approved political constituencies and excluded the previous body’s most notoriously non-compliant members.
In order to move Geneva forward, Geneva’s participants and backers are pushing it towards something that is more Russian and—for many of them, on the merits—probably not desirable.
No Geneva Deal, on Anyone’s Terms
Still, it seems unlikely that Geneva will ultimately arrive at even a Russian outcome.
The Assad regime—at every opportunity, even when it is being bullied by its senior Russian partner—stresses its own “sovereignty and independence,” in line with the UN Charter. It is unlikely to ever accept a settlement to which it is only one of several parties, negotiated under international auspices outside Syria’s borders. Russia doesn’t seem able to compel Assad to endorse a Geneva deal, even one that has been purpose-built by Russia and that is, objectively, a victory for Assad and his allies.
Before it gets to that point, Geneva’s new American fans will probably figure out that this process is not getting them where they want to go. It will not remove Assad and, against all logic, turn America’s loss in Syria into a win. U.S. officials are highly sensitive to Russia’s attempts to flank Geneva, and, officials told me, are actively working to close down Russia’s parallel processes. To that end, last month’s joint presidential statement from President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin recommitting both countries to the idea that “the ultimate political solution to [Syria’s] conflict must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254” may have seemed like a victory. But this language is not incompatible with how Russia has described its parallel processes, as tributaries flowing into Geneva’s “ultimate” solution. And other notes in the statement make it sound like America inadvertently endorsed a more Russian Geneva process. For example, the two heads of state “took note of President [Assad’s] recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections as called for under UNSCR 2254,” which does not sound like a prelude to regime change.
By now, any progress in Geneva depends on Russian machinations. Geneva will only actually produce something if the Russians are allowed to invert it and replace its insides with Russian guts. The alternative is not a functioning peace process that America will like and endorse. The alternative is deadlock, nothing—just more aimless time-wasting in Switzerland.
That may not be worst thing, if the objective is just to deny Russia a clean, internationally legitimate victory. In the end, Russia will probably have to settle for a de facto regime victory, one that will preclude full normalization and reconstruction investment. For the Russians, this will be sub-ideal, but they and their Syrian allies can likely make it work.
Geneva, meanwhile, is on its way to becoming the Syrian equivalent of the post-Oslo Israeli–Palestinian peace process—something obviously defunct and non-viable, but from which international sponsors feel unable to disengage. Syrians on the war’s losing side can be arm-twisted into new and more creative concessions, but never enough to yield an actual deal. And diplomats who themselves recognize Geneva’s futility cannot make the case against Geneva to their respective capitals, and they consider outright withdrawal and abstention anathema. The result is likely additional brainstorming sessions about how to make upcoming Geneva rounds meaningful, but not many answers other than, “More Geneva, but this time with feeling.”
For the Trump administration, the question is what they’ll do when they realize Geneva is not what will make a handful of specific American policies into a Syria strategy. Will Washington surrender to the prevailing Geneva ennui? Will it assent to an agreement on Russia’s terms, if only to end Syria’s war and stabilize the country? Invest in non-Geneva deal-making, by, for example, attempting to midwife a bilateral arrangement between the regime and America’s local Kurdish partners? Or, dissatisfied with the Syrian war’s current trajectory, resort to something more unpredictable and dangerous?
All these options promise unknown outcomes, but nothing that could obviously be construed as a policy victory. In any case, one thing is certain: Whatever the Trump administration decides, it won’t be Geneva that makes sense of U.S. involvement in Syria.
Cover Photo: SYRIAN GOVERNMENT LEAD NEGOTIATOR AND UN REPRESENTATIVE BASHAR AL-JAAFARI ARRIVES TO A MEETING WITH UN SPECIAL ENVOY STAFFAN DE MISTURA. SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS.