MADRID – The Geneva II Middle East peace conference, to be held on January 22, will take place against a backdrop of singularly appalling numbers: Syria’s brutal civil has left an estimated 130,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees registered in neighboring countries, and some four million more internally displaced.
The stakes at the conference are thus exceptionally high, both for Syria and for its neighbors, which are straining against severe destabilization. Lebanon has taken in more than 800,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan and Turkey have more than a half-million each. Iraq has received more than 200,000, and Egypt has nearly 150,000. These figures, a result of three years of civil war, are simply inacceptable.
What seemed like a new phase of the Arab revolts in early 2011 has become the worst conflict so far this century. Meanwhile, the international community has been disastrously divided. Since the fighting began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had Russia’s explicit international support. But while Russia’s strategy, from the outset, has been coherent and well-defined, the West’s has not. The United States and the European Union have remained hesitant, establishing no clear aims regarding the conflict. This vacillation contrasts starkly with the position taken by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which have steadfastly supported the Sunni opposition to Assad, and that of Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which have been equally resolute in supporting the regime.
Syria’s civil war has crystallized the complex geopolitical problem that has long characterized the region: the Sunni-Shia cleavage. The sectarian divide underlies the latent struggle for regional control between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The radicalization of Syria’s opposition, however, has complicated the situation even further, nesting one problem within another – much like Russian matryoshka dolls. The Sunnis are divided, with the more moderate forces opposing the radical Al Qaeda affiliates. In fact, in just the last few days, internecine clashes have left more than 700 dead.
The turn for the worse followed last year’s chain of events, which started with the United Nations’ accusation that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons and ended with the US-Russia brokered agreement to destroy the regime’s chemical arsenal (thereby avoiding a poorly planned and ill-timed Western military intervention). Indeed, it is now clear that the agreement’s chief side effect has been to breathe new life into the regime, thereby frustrating the hope of the more moderate rebel groups and allowing Al Qaeda-linked forces to gather support and strength within the opposition.
The consequences of this radicalization are spreading throughout the region and worldwide. Syria is now a problem for global security. The main concern now seems to have shifted to defeating Al Qaeda, rather than Assad. The region is in turmoil, and the presence of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda is an enormous risk for everyone. Indeed, ten years after the start of the war in Iraq, groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have taken control of key Iraqi cities, including the symbolically important city of Fallujah.
The Geneva II conference offers an opportunity to address these dangers. But risks abound. We still do not know who will represent the Syrian opposition, or if the Syrian National Council ‒ which demands that Assad step down unconditionally ‒ will even be there. The regime, for its part, wants the conference to focus on combating the growing extremist presence within the opposition, which it refers to generically as “terrorist.”
Nor is it known whether Iran will participate. As a key actor in the conflict, Iran should have an important role in its resolution. And, despite the resistance of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni opposition, the US and the EU currently seem more inclined to accept Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva II negotiations, especially now that advances are being made in the implementation of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program concluded in November.
The top priority at the conference must be to secure a ceasefire. This is the only way to return to what should be the international community’s main concern: ending the suffering of the Syrian population, restoring their country to them, and offering them the chance to construct the peaceful future they deserve.
Beyond the geopolitical risks that Syria’s civil war has created, the suffering of millions of human beings cries out for an end to the violence. After three years of war, a ceasefire is currently the best path to peace. For that reason, Geneva II is an opportunity that must not be wasted.