WASHINGTON—No one expected the negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition, Syrian National Coalition, in Geneva to be smooth or easy.
Before the talks even began last weekend, analysts and western diplomats predicted that the main focus of the Geneva sessions—the resignation of Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president and the formation of a national unity government of mutual consent—would be nearly impossible to reach.
Despite the pessimism, there was a reasonable measure of hope that the Syrian government and opposition would be able to come to terms on helping their people survive the war.
Above all, the distribution of humanitarian supplies and food packages to blockaded neighborhoods in Syria were seen as something everyone could sign up for; a goodwill gesture that both sides could make to improve an otherwise depressing negotiating atmosphere.
Yet if there is anything the past week of talks has revealed, it is that even the smallest gestures of humanity towards their fellow Syrians are seemingly beyond reach.
Indeed, only a day after the Assad regime agreed to provide safe passage to women and children who wish to leave the embattled and blockaded old city of Homs, the Syrian delegation has refused to allow the transfer to occur.
Blaming insurgent snipers and the general lack of security around the city for the impasse, the Assad delegation has refused to begin the evacuation of civilians and the distribution of aid into the old city district unless the opposition provides assurances that armed fighters would not be the beneficiaries of assistance. The opposition, meanwhile, is demanding that aid be sent into the city immediately, without any preconditions attached.
If the two sides cannot even manage to cooperate on what was supposed to be a small diplomatic win, there is virtually no possibility that they will muster the effort needed to begin talking about a political transition.
United Nations Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has stressed nearly every day that even “breaking the ice,” as he puts it, has proven to be an exceedingly slow endeavor for one simple reason: there is a wide gap between what the opposition seeks to accomplish, and what the regime will allow.
For a diplomat like Brahimi, who is used to troubleshooting major problems for the United Nations and ushering in transitional governments in the worst of circumstances, Syria is surely the most difficult problem area in his long and distinguished career.
Even with his considerable skills as one of the world’s top diplomats, there is very little Brahimi can accomplish if the main parties are unable or unwilling to come to the most basic of agreements—including whether food and humanitarian supplies should be sent to a besieged and starving population.
And even if minor deals are struck during the second round of talks scheduled for February 10, the central purpose of forming a transitional government with full executive authority will not be any closer to being resolved, due both to the absolute distrust that both sides have for one another, and to their inability to compromise on their core positions.
For all of the Syrian National Coalition’s support from western and Arab nations, the Assad regime is in no mood to begin negotiating their own surrender, particularly when the rebels are divided among hundreds of different groups and pro-government forces continue to control the country’s major cities and highways.
As difficult as it is to realize, it is inevitable that the Geneva talks will eventually break down. The question is whether they will collapse in a few weeks or a few months, and what that collapse will mean for the future of Syria.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., and an editor at the Atlantic Sentinel.