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Is Geneva the Ghost of Negotiations Future?

Though Secretary of State John Kerry probably won’t heed the warnings, the disastrous Syrian peace negotiations are providing the service of at least demonstrating where the West’s current style of negotiating with rogue regimes leads. The talks are falling apart, as the New York Times reports today. But the process by which they are doing so has been nonetheless illuminating.

The Syrian peace track took a turn in September after the Obama administration began making the case for striking targets in Syria aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Kerry was asked how strikes could be avoided, and, seemingly caught off-guard, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Critics of the Syria deal initially said it would be used by Russia and Assad as a delaying tactic. The Obama administration didn’t much care, because the cause of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was deemed worth the time needed to accomplish it. But whatever the desirability of the goal here, the current form of the Syria peace process followed a familiar outline: it began with a delay considered reasonable, but soon expanded into various other demands to buy time. As the Times reports:

Russian officials accused the Syrian opposition’s Western backers on Friday of focusing solely on “regime change” and said the government would discuss political transition only if its opponents agreed on a joint fight against terrorism.

The declarations — unlikely to produce compromise because the government tends to define all its armed opponents, including those backed by the opposition delegation here, as terrorists — added to the state of suspense at peace talks that so far have produced no progress. The negotiations this week were the second round, and there is now uncertainty over whether there will be a third.

The statements came a day after a meeting of Russian, American and United Nations officials failed to produce a consensus on how to unblock the talks and push the parties toward substantive negotiations.

Theoretically, the drive to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons does not have to be linked in any way with the Geneva talks. But it’s undeniable that the chemical-weapons deal has altered the landscape of this particular peace process. Assad is in a stronger position by having elevated his Russian backers in the conflict and by his required cooperation–and therefore, effectively, his regime’s protection–with the West.

He is also more able to make demands, because the threat of force against his regime has been taken off the table for now. The West would be conducting these negotiations with or without the chemical-weapons deal, but the chemical-weapons deal has removed the most effective enforcement mechanism. Assad can play for time, and in fact the Times report shows him to be no longer even feigning interest in the process:

Mr. Brahimi, they said, complained that the Syrian delegation had refused to even touch, let alone read, a 24-point plan presented by the opposition on Wednesday on how to structure a political transition for Syria. Instead, they said, the government delegates left the paper on the table and walked away.

The opposition delegates have agreed to a compromise agenda that would simultaneously address their top priority — the formation of a fully empowered transitional governing body “by mutual consent” — and that of the government, which is to end violence and terrorism in Syria.

But the government delegates have so far refused, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday seemed to back them up, declaring that the opposition and its backers appeared solely focused on deposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Just as the chemical-weapons deal and the transition negotiations became inextricably linked by the precedent one set for the other, so the Obama administration may find that the Syrian conflict is not taking place in a vacuum. Kerry has two other peace processes on his plate at the moment: the nuclear deal with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Ostensibly, they are separate from each other and the Syrian track. But in practice it just isn’t the case. For example the Iranian government is involved, on some level or another, in all three. Syria is its patron and it is helping to prosecute the war by proxy. And its relationship with Palestinian terror groups enables it to cause trouble there as well.

Additionally, they are watching in Geneva just how far delaying tactics can be taken. Already there has been talk of extending the deadlines for both the Iran talks and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Ideally, Kerry would understand that Syria just may be the ghost of negotiations future. He seems determined, however, to find that out for himself the hard way.



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