The Geneva II conference on Syria, which is set to begin in Switzerland Wednesday, is unlikely to achieve its goal of forming a transitional authority with full executive powers. But what it can do is launch a much-needed political process and, more important, produce a cease-fire agreement between government and opposition forces. Only when the fighting has stopped can Syria make genuine progress in the direction of a political transition.
Of course, Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has become a potent force on the ground, and the Nusra Front will not and should not be represented in Montreux – not least because they will not feel bound by any agreement that may be reached there. But this should not serve as an excuse not to pursue a cease-fire. After all, even stopping the fighting between regime forces and some armed groups – that is, those that associate themselves with the Syrian National Coalition, or are at least are willing to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army and the partly Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front – would in itself be a major achievement.
The imposition of a cease-fire is critical, because the fighting serves the interests of the most brutal elements on both sides of the Syrian conflict. This includes the core leadership of President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is now supported by Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, as much as it does ISIS, which is composed largely of non-Syrians unconcerned about rebuilding the country or safeguarding the future of the Syrian people.
As in any civil war, such entrepreneurs of violence become increasingly likely to carry the day the longer the conflict endures. They feed off their own atrocities or off of those of their opponents to win support through fear rather than conviction. In order to do so, they use videos to raise funds and to recruit new members.
With skilled fighters and plenty of money and arms, ISIS and the Nusra Front thrive amid persistent war and anarchy. Meanwhile, the regime benefits from the fact that parts of the country that it no longer controls cannot be called “liberated zones,” given the prevailing chaos in these areas.
A cease-fire would initiate a shift in such dynamics, allowing humanitarian supplies to reach the areas where they are needed most urgently, while also halting the gradual “Somalization” of the country. This would help to stem the flow of refugees – and the spillover of violence – to neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Iraq.
Furthermore, if the cease-fire held, it would also facilitate economic reconstruction, while enabling moderate political actors and civil groups to win back some power from the extremists – a shift that ordinary Syrians would welcome. Indeed, people in jihadist-controlled areas are deeply unhappy with the reality of Al-Qaeda terrorizing them and trying to enforce its version of Islamic mores – so much so that the regime increasingly appears to be a better alternative to continued warfare or an Al-Qaeda takeover.
The problem is that for as long as violence prevents moderate forces from restoring services and administrative structures, people’s capacity for resistance will remain weak. International organizations could treat such structures as de facto authorities, supplying them directly with aid and also giving NGOs or United Nations investigators an opportunity to collect evidence of war crimes for future judicial or truth-commission proceedings.
To be sure, fears that a cease-fire could lead to a stabilization of the conflict’s front lines, turning them into semipermanent lines of division, are not without merit. After all, a cease-fire is not a peace agreement; it would, for the time being, leave regime and opposition forces in their respective positions. But having different authorities administer different parts of Syria is preferable to the absence of any responsible governance across large swaths of the country.
Moreover, a cease-fire would enable the FSA and its allies to coordinate action with units of the regular army against Al-Qaeda-linked bands, which would undoubtedly seek to sustain the violence. Even such limited cooperation would advance the “Geneva process” – especially negotiations aimed at establishing a transitional authority in Syria that would command the armed forces.
Given that the regime has overwhelming firepower, its consent is vital to achieving a cease-fire agreement. Responsibility for convincing Assad to stop bombing and shelling opposition-held areas would fall primarily on his international allies, Russia and Iran. In doing so, they should bear in mind that it was Assad who led the country into civil war by choosing a military solution when high-level members of his own government and political party argued for a negotiated settlement.
Neither Russia nor Iran has an interest in prolonging a war that is destabilizing the Middle East and fostering the spread of Al-Qaeda-style extremism. Indeed, both countries have already helped to bring the Syrian regime to Geneva II. Now, they must make their support for Assad’s delegation conditional upon his acceptance of a cease-fire. Otherwise, prospects for an outcome that leaves Syria intact and viable will only become bleaker.
Volker Perthes is director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).