It's very unlikely that the third Geneva Conference for a peaceful settlement in Syria will lead to any breakthroughs, or a halt to the bloodshed in that divided country. But if the opposition leaders who demand the immediate ouster of President Assad would agree to join negotiation talks with representatives of the Assad regime, even if only for indirect dialogue, it would be genuine diplomatic achievement. The greatest winner from it would be Vladimir Putin.
Russian military intervention in Syria has not only saved (at least, so far) President Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies from defeat on the battlefield. In parallel, Russia has scored a huge diplomatic coup in getting the US administration of Barack Obama 'on board' against the background of the Syrian crisis, persuaded the Americans to soften their position, and agree to a regulated peace settlement based on Russia's initiatives. The Obama administration took a decisive step back from demanding Assad's ouster as precondition prior to the opening of the process to establish a new Syrian government. Washington's new position is that if Assad were to fall now, it would leave the way open for jihadists such Daesh or Jabbat al-Nusra to seize power. Russia has also made concessions — letting it be known that in two years time it could cease its support for Assad, if the new government seems to be stable, and able to guarantee that the Kremlin's interests will not suffer. These are not the only instances of agreement between Russia and the USA. They are also in strategic and tactical collaboration that has been established through Russian and American partners in the Middle East.
Two nations stand to gain most from the convergence of Russian and American positions over Syria. The first is Assad himself. He and his Alawite regime have gained two years of immunity from overthrow attempts. The second winner is Israel – which keeps a close alliance with the USA, whilst simultaneously maintaining a civil, and occasionally good relationship with Russia. Prudent yet secretive actions could win influence behind the scenes during the creation of a new government in Syria – when, and if, that process finally begins. Moreover, growing Syrian intervention by the USA and Russia can only contribute to stability in the region, and stave off the chances of a fresh crisis or unexpected war between Israel and Hezbollah, or any of Iran's other partners.
There are other aspects to the Russo-American rapprochement, in addition to the situation in Syria. The Obama administration will continue to dislike Putin. But reaching agreement on Syria will help the two nations move forward on questions where they have common interests, such as the Ukraine crisis – the principle stumbling-block for relations between the western nations led by the USA with Russia. It seems that the Obama administration is trying to find a way through the Ukrainian crisis, and the Kremlin is ready to lower the bar of excessive demands about Ukraine. The US-imposed sanctions, which have been echoed by the European Union and Britain, alongside the fall in oil prices have caused serious damage to Russia's economy, and caused Putin to consider a change of course.
Despite this, Syria remains the main reason for the rapprochement of the two superpowers. Both the USA and Russia have interests in the cessation of this bloody conflict, which has dragged on for nearly six years, and is a major contributory factor to global instability. The bitter antipathy between Sunnis and Shiites has already engulfed Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt in blood-riven warfare, along with threatening to bring war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies – including nuclear-armed Pakistan. Another reason which brings the two nations together is that the White House and the Kremlin is the realization that there can be no liquidation of the entity known as Daesh unless the war in Syria finishes first. Both the US and Russia have interests in seeing the jihadist salafist movement wiped out. Russia has concerns that its ideology might seep into communities in the Caucasus. The USA fears terrible atrocities and massacres which all those involved have committed in the wars in Iraq and Syria.
The Holocaust Memorial, and the refugee crisis
The bloodshed in Syria has cost the lives of over 300,000 people, and made tens of thousands of Syrian civilians homeless – a burden burned on the conscience of the USA and its Western allies, who are remembered for their inaction during the Holocaust. The USA also fears Daesh may take control of pro-Western Islamic nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The refugee crisis has undermined stability in Europe and confidence in European culture – a further impulse for the USA and Russia to put an end to the war in Syria.
Russia and the USA have much in common. The military top brass of both nations agree that they have no practical ideas on how Daesh can be liquidated, yet ideological methods have failed too. Americans rue their defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which they failed to remove the Islamic terrorists and partisans. The Russians, too, look back to their failures in Afghanistan, along with the First Chechen War.
Both of these nations have tasted defeat – despite the fact that both sent in enormous conventional forces. Today, neither Russia nor America is in a position to commit huge military contingents in the Middle East – or in the other regions where Daesh, al-Qaeda or their siblings have put down roots. A diplomatic settlement to the Syrian crisis will enable them to save face. Particularly the USA, whose strategy of air strikes allied to propping-up local opposition movements has suffered utter failure. The Russian and Iranian approach has worked-out better, as they don't allow their bombing policy to be influenced by humanitarian pleading or legal quibbles. Yet they are not equipped to defeat Daesh entirely on the battlefield, nor in the battle of minds either.
For the political process to succeed for Russia and the US, there needs to be all-round agreement for all sides. They will have to convince an opposition coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to sit down at the same negotiating table as Assad. Turkey is fundamentally opposed to any kind of parley with Kurdish partisans, whose presence is insisted upon by Russia. Russia also demands the talks inclusion of the 'quasi-opposition', with whom Assad and Iran are ready to talk). We must also consider the Libyans, Iraqis and Jordanians, who all have their own patrons and their own interests, which stand in apposition to the other talks participants, which hinders effective discussion.
The main thorny issue, on which there is no agreement among the talks participants and the countries who support them, is the future of Assad and his administration. The second problem is the unwillingness of Assad and the representatives of the opposition factions to hold talks with each other. This all throws the outcome of the talks into question. It's quite possible that the Geneva talks, planned for the end of this week will be either postponed or abandoned. Another possibility is that discussion will be limited to preliminary talks, with UN General Secretary de Mistura forced into the role of mediator.
Any kind of settlement is still a long way off, while the bloodshed in Syria will continue unabated in Syria during 2016 – and very probably for longer. Yet the Geneva Talks will be remembered as the occasion when world powers acted in concord, giving a ray of hope for the end of insane hostilities in Syria.