SECRETARY OF State John F. Kerry did not seem to be persuading even himself Thursday when he delivered a statement beseeching the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition to participate in a peace conference in Switzerland beginning Wednesday. Rejecting any “revisionism” about the purpose of the meeting, Mr. Kerry insisted that what is called Geneva 2 “is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition government body” to replace the regime of Bashar al-Assad — who, according to Mr. Kerry, would be excluded from the transition.
Mr. Kerry may have believed his declaration was necessary to prevent his much-promoted initiative on Syria from collapsing before it could get underway. Yet even if the opposition coalition votes to attend the meeting in Montreux — its deliberations were underway as this page went to press — there appears to be no chance that the outcome the secretary of state described as the gathering’s “sole purpose” will come about in the foreseeable future.
Mr. Kerry must know the reasons for this as well as anyone. The Western-backed coalition no longer represents most rebel forces inside Syria, who oppose the negotiations. The Assad regime rejects the supposed transition and says the purpose of the conference should be to discuss how to “fight terrorism.” Government forces have gained ground in recent months, so there is no reason to expect such a capitulation.
Why insist that this long-shot objective is Geneva 2’s exclusive goal? With slightly greater realism, Mr. Kerry said that the conference “is not the end but rather the beginning, the launch of a process.” On Friday, he added that once the parties “begin to get into this process, it will become clear that there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition.”
Perhaps that is true, though there is no indication that Mr. Assad’s backers in Russia and Iran buy this notion. The danger is that Geneva 2 will become an endless talk shop that serves to prop up the Assad regime and further undermines an opposition already badly damaged by the Obama administration’s broken promises to support rebel forces.
Geneva 2 could be constructive if it were to produce some palliative measures. Mr. Kerry and his aides are talking up the possibility of localized cease-fires — the regime said Friday that it would propose one in the ravaged city of Aleppo — and the opening of humanitarian corridors to areas where hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped, in some cases literally starving. The problem, as the New York Times reported Friday, is that the regime is cynically manipulating these would-be deals, attempting to force the surrender of rebel-held areas in exchange for food or approving relief convoys and then blocking them.
Mr. Assad’s employment of such tactics caused the last diplomatic process to break down two years ago. There’s not much reason to expect that he would behave differently now unless much greater pressure is brought to bear on him. That’s why it was slightly encouraging to hear Mr. Kerry say, “ We are also not out of options . . . to increase the pressure and further change the calculus.” We can only hope that this is not another Obama administration bluff.