The Montreux-to-Geneva peace conference is underway, and although the mainstream media is focusing on the negatives—namely, the fact that the invitation to Iran was blocked by the United States, and the confrontational exchange between Syria’s foreign minister and the United Nations’ Ban Ki-Moon—it’s important to emphasize that diplomacy, not war, is the only way out of the Syrian crisis. Still, Secretary of State John Kerry was hypocritical in his denunciation of the government of Bashar al-Assad, glossing over the atrocities by the anti-Assad rebels and demonizing Assad. Hopefully, behind the scenes, Kerry’s hard line on Syria will give way to a more serious effort to compromise in search of a solution.
Still, what’s happening in Switzerland is critically important, and it reflects an important shift from war to diplomacy on the part of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. The start of the Geneva process on Syria—coming only months after Obama and Kerry seemed determined to bomb Syria—and the successful beginning of the Iran-P5+1 talks are signal events.
That said, all sides acknowledge that the Syrian civil war won’t end anytime soon, and it will take enormous patience on all sides before there will be a resolution. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, took a very hard line, too, as did the delegation representing the opposition. But some of that, at least, is for show, and it happened on the public stage. When the talks move from Montreux to Geneva on Friday, the real negotiations will take place, and the discussions will occur behind closed doors.
As Kerry said in a press conference following the first day of talks, it’ll be a long, hard road. “No one should doubt, no one’s trying to gloss this over, that this is the beginning of a tough and complicated process,” he said. “It’s no secret that getting to where we are now has, as I said, been difficult, and peace and stability will not arrive overnight. But it’s important that this process is now in place. It is important that the government and the opposition will sit down over these next days. And we don’t expect a sudden breakthrough.”
Part of the reason no breakthrough is imminent is that the conflict between the Syrian government and the rebels is not the only one going on. Parallel to that is the conflict between the United States, which implacably demands that the government of Bashar al-Assad be ousted, and Russia, which says that there is no reason at the outset to exclude the possibility that Assad and his cohort would remain in place. On top of that, there is a regional conflict between Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, the chief backer of the opposition. If the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran can all agree on the outlines of a new Syrian political balance, then there’s a chance that the peace talks can succeed. Unfortunately, in a shortsighted and self-defeating step, the United States and the Syrian rebels insisted that an invitation to Iran from the UN’s Ban be rescinded, and it was.
In an exchange with Kim Ghattas of the BBC in Montreux, Kerry obfuscated on Iran, falling back on the US insistence that Iran should have agreed to preconditions calling for the ouster of the Assad government and the creation of a “transitional” authority. Here’s the exchange between Ghattas and Kerry:
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for taking our questions. Iran was disinvited from this conference because Tehran did not endorse the Geneva communiqué. But then clearly, as we saw today, neither does the Syrian Government. Iran is almost as much a party to the conflict as the Syrian Government. Can you really expect to make progress in the negotiations without finding a way to involve Iran in the conversation at some point?