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Syria talks showcase chasm in positions. What was US expecting?

Whether Assad could be part of a transitional Syrian government elicited sharp disagreement at the talks, suggesting US hopes for the forum were modest, perhaps just a series of small steps.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence at the opening of a Syria peace conference Wednesday that there is “no way possible” for Bashar al-Assad to be part of a transitional government that would take Syria out of its civil war does not mean the Syrian leader is any closer to leaving power.

President Obama has been making the same vow since August 2011, and if anything Mr. Assad is more securely entrenched in power in Damascus now than he was then.

Almost no one believes the international conference that opened in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday will lead anytime soon to Assad’s departure – or to an end to fighting that has left more than 120,000 Syrians dead and at least 20 percent of the population displaced. But if that is so, why were Mr. Kerry and the US so adamant that the conference take place?

One explanation is the hope that the international gathering, or more likely the talks between warring Syrian factions scheduled to get under way Friday in Geneva, might lead to small but potentially critical steps like localized cease-fires and accords on improved humanitarian access.

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Another possibility some diplomatic experts cite is that, simply by taking place, the conference ramps up pressure on the internal and external players to keep open diplomatic channels for resolving a conflict that almost everyone agrees is not going to be settled on the battlefield.

Then for some is the possibility that Kerry – who spoke repeatedly before the conference about the “long road” ahead – understood the long odds for success but did not want his tenure as secretary of state summed up with the headline, “he did nothing while Syria burned.”

“Kerry may have been motivated by wanting to protect his diplomatic legacy,” says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “In any case it’s hard to imagine that the secretary of state really thinks Assad is about to accept negotiating himself out of a job.”

Mr. Phillips, who faults the Obama administration for what he calls “a shambles of a Syria policy,” says he fears that Kerry, wanting to do something to address a horrendous and deteriorating crisis on his watch, was “hoodwinked” by Russia into thinking that Assad’s major international supporters were ready to abandon Assad in favor of a political transition.

“Kerry may have been sold a bill of goods by the Russians that they and perhaps the Iranians were ready to think about easing Assad out,” Phillips says. “But if he does believe that, it’s pretty clear he is mistaken.”

At the close of Wednesday’s conference, Kerry told reporters that the gathering of representatives of more than 40 countries and international organizations was unanimous – with the exception of the Syrian government – “about [a transition government] and … the Geneva I communiqué” of June 2012 that calls for a transition government “with full executive authority by mutual consent.”

“It is significant,” Kerry said, “that all of the other countries but that one [the Assad regime] came here to endorse the Geneva I communiqué,” Kerry said.

Russia, however, had a different take on the conference, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovdeclaring after Kerry’s opening call for Assad’s departure that it was incumbent on the international community to “refrain from any attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.”

Not surprisingly, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, was even more direct in his dismissal of the US position. “No one, Mr. Kerry, in the world has the right to give legitimacy or to withdraw legitimacy from a president, a government, a constitution or a law or anything in Syria, except Syrians,” Mr. Moallem said.

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Warning that a focus on leadership change in Damascus risked scuttling the peace talks, Mr. Lavrov called for emphasizing small steps first and announced that he had convinced Moallem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba to begin direct talks Friday on issues like prisoner exchanges, humanitarian assistance, and possibly a cease-fire in Aleppo.

“The main thing is to start the process,” Lavrov said. The initial talks between the two Syrian sides will last about a week, he said.

Russia’s commitment to what is called the “Geneva II” process is interpreted by regional analysts as evidence that Russia, while intent on reestablishing Syria’s stability, is not necessarily committed to Assad’s long-term survival in power.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says in a recent post on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website that neither Russia nor Iran “necessarily prefers an outcome that leaves … Assad in office or embodies a complete and unambiguous regime victory.”

And, Mr. Sayigh adds, the Assad regime is beginning to act in ways that suggest it is concerned about flagging Russian support. “The alacrity with which [Foreign Minister Moallem] accepted Russian advice to make a strong public relations gesture with the offer of a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire in Aleppo,” he writes, “may reveal Assad’s anxiety about the Russian commitment to his remaining in power.” 

But others, including Heritage’s Phillips, say the “small steps” that Geneva II may lead to won’t change the course of the nearly three-year-old conflict – and that no substantial change will occur until Assad feels much more threatened.

“There really is no chance for a diplomatic breakthrough until the Assad regime is feeling much more heat than it is now or than what is likely to result from this week’s talks,” Phillips says. “Assad is not under nearly enough pressure to reach any kind of diplomatic settlement, even if the administration seems to think so.”