UN peace talks on Syria planned, but hopes dim

Protesters demonstrate against western intervention in Syria, outside

Protesters demonstrate against western intervention in Syria, outside the US embassy in central London. (June 15, 2013) (Credit: AP )

UNITED NATIONS -- So acute are the problems in war-torn Syria, some area analysts are skeptical that next month's meeting between the United States, Russia and the UN in Geneva will be successful at finding a diplomatic solution to the country's civil war.

The conference is being planned amid reports that the conflict increases in brutality by the day.

On Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces captured a suburb of Damascus near the capital's airport, and last week, the United States announced it would supply rebels with weapons, saying Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons and crossed a "red line."


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Children besieged

War crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by both sides, according to a recent UN commission's report on the war.

Another UN report on children in armed conflict released Wednesday said Syrian children are besieged by horrific violence and may be the worst off of any youngsters living in areas undergoing armed conflict worldwide.

Those factors and many others have analysts concluding that the talks have dim prospects for success even as the UN and the Arab League's envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, make arrangements for talks that will begin next month after a prep meeting June 25.

"To suppose that the conference is going to succeed requires an optimistic belief that Russia controls Iran and Hezbollah," said Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling Professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore.

"They may think it convenient to be in alignment with Iran and Hezbollah and Assad but [that] certainly doesn't mean it controls their actions," she said. "Even if there was a Russian-American consensus, I'm not sure that either side can control the principals . . . I can't imagine a more chaotic situation."

Other analysts agree with Wedgwood's view that if there is a possibility of success it can be realized only if the two brokers, the U.S. and Russia, can control the actions of the volatile parties they are sponsoring.

The United States -- which is working on behalf of the Syrian opposition and countries that support it, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey -- has the task of controlling a fragmented rebel group that has within its ranks fighters who are linked to al-Qaida, analysts said.

Russia has to bring Assad to the table and hope for cooperation from his backers, including Iran. Assad also has strong support from Lebanese fighters who belong to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia based in southern Lebanon.

"We should put all our efforts into ensuring that both sides send credible delegations to the conference," said Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K.'s UN ambassador.

Danielle Zach, a professor of political science at Adelphi University, said the Security Council's inability to reach consensus on Syria has allowed the situation in the razed cities of Syria to reach an intractable point.

The UN estimates 93,000 people are dead and millions displaced and fleeing into neighboring countries, creating a dire humanitarian crisis.

"I'm not enthusiastic that negotiations have a strong prospect for success," she said. "I think it is the only thing to do at this point. The ongoing deadlock [in the Security Council] has forestalled taking measures that could have prevented, or at least contained, the conflict."

Other complications

Agreement on many issues will be hard to achieve in Geneva, too, observers said.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said the conflict on the surface between the Syrian government and rebels is complicated by other tensions.

There is the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict to address, as Sunni and Shia clash, as well as the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, she said.

"All of this is being fought down to the last Syrian," Bennis said, adding that there is virtually no hope for peace unless arms stop flowing to both combatants. The European Union has allowed an arms embargo to expire, meaning arms shipments could be headed to rebels or Syria's military, and Russia could still deliver a stash of anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian forces, a prospect that alarms Israel.

"This conference is a beginning but we're still at the middle of the tunnel," she said. "The light comes when both sides are prepared to say we've got to stop arming both sides."

David Patel, a professor of government at Cornell University, said the opposition's lack of cohesion is among the largest hurdles, because there is no single representative of a critical mass of the groups that want Assad overthrown.

"I think there is an extremely low chance of success happening," he said. "The rebels and opposition groups are divided. There is no set of individuals who speak and can credibly speak for the opposition. They tried their darnedest to create any sort of body to represent them."

He said that if history is any guide, the battle for Syria will rage on and get worse. "I don't see any chance of this being negotiated," he said, adding that civil wars are rarely brought to an end through negotiation and that the average length of a civil war is eight to 10 years. "I don't think the Assad regime is going to collapse or that the rebels are going to end this quickly."

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