In Geneva this week, Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to compel an entrenched dictator to surrender his considerable power so as to appease an opposition group that has no power. Not surprisingly, the talks over Syria's future are going nowhere and, if he continues on this course, Kerry may well prove his critics correct when they say he is out of touch with reality.
Perhaps the biggest pretense underlying the Geneva II conference on Syria is that what's happening on the ground today is anything like what it was a year and a half ago, when on June 30, 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed a joint communique that called for a political "transition" in Syria. At the time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was besieged and even the Russians were hinting to then-U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that he might be pushed out. The rebel opposition was also more unified and secular—in other words, acceptable to the West as an alternative to Assad. Today Assad is amply supplied by the Russians and supported by Iranian-backed Hezbollah; the opposition has fractured bitterly and its strongest elements are radical Islamist militias that are fighting each other (leading some intelligence experts to suggest that as bad as Assad is, what might follow would be worse). The Syrian National Coalition representing the rebels in Geneva is increasingly coming to resemble the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi before the 2003 Iraq invasion: It is a group that is largely made up of exiles and without influence inside its own country.
So the question is, what is Kerry doing by repeating the same calls for Assad's ouster that we were hearing a year and a half ago?
"There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern," Kerry said Wednesday, sidestepping the fact that the U.S. government struck a deal with Assad's government last fall to surrender its chemical weapons, and Assad himself has called for new elections.
If he persists in this line, Kerry's approach appears to be a certain path to diplomatic disaster in Geneva and continuing bloodshed in Syria. Despite the drastically changed power balance on the ground, the Syrian opposition in Geneva is also living in a pretend reality. It is insisting that it won't meet the government in face-to-face talks over other issues, including refugees, unless Damascus puts the issue of a transitional government on the table. Damascus, in response, is threatening to walk out of the talks.
"Kerry still wants the whole loaf," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "The question now is does he take half a loaf—a cease-fire where the regime owns the the south and west, as they have for two years, the rebels control the north and east, and the Kurds own the very far northeast." Most Syrians resist the idea of partition, but any cease-fire in the foreseeable future would have to acknowledge those entrenched realities on the ground.
Kerry, in continuing to say that Assad has lost his legitimacy and must go, may be scoring political points in the Arab world, which has grown bitter and critical of the Obama administration's hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war. But persisting with a hard line will likely only result in a very hard fall in Geneva.