Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Switzerland has a history of sitting out of conflicts.
But it hasn’t stopped the elegant lakeside paradise of Geneva from opening its doors to others in the hope of bringing peace.
Sadly in the case of Syria, the fresh Swiss air has failed to breathe life into the stuttering peace talks that have taken place in Geneva over the past four years.
Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government – who have trooped through many of Geneva’s fine hotels – have never even met face-to-face with Syria’s opposition.
The best that negotiators have been able to manage has been proximity talks: the two sides in separate rooms, meeting at different times with mediators.
This time the opposition says it is ready to meet in person with Assad’s negotiators. This week, years of failure could begin to come to an end.
The major urban battles in Syria are over or nearing their end. ISIS is almost defeated and the Syrian war’s principal outside actors – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Turkey – seem to agree on some basics.
Yes, we have been here before. But this time it feels different. Russia is calling almost all the shots, making an outcome in Assad’s favor much closer.
The US is more or less out of the fray and under President Trump, seems to have made peace with that. Syria’s political opposition, which the US once supported, is so hobbled it can barely look over its own shoulder.
Indeed, the opposition has in the past insisted Assad must go almost as a precondition for talks rather than an outcome of the peace process itself. And where Obama supported this position, Trump is reversing from it.
In late October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “The only thing that changed is when this administration came into office, we took a view that it is not a prerequisite that Assad go before that process starts; rather, the mechanism by which Assad departs will likely emerge from that process.”
But as we approach this latest round of talks, Assad seemed to be leveraging Trump’s implicit support, delaying his delegation’s arrival at the talks, pushing back against opposition demands he needs to go early in the talks process and not be part of a transitional government.
As the US bows out, Assad appears empowered and the UN mediator weakened. On the eve of talks he issued a statement demanding no preconditions from either side.
Tillerson appeared to indicate that these talks could be the beginning of the end, telling journalists that once the Geneva talks are up and running, then the US can pull its 2,000 troops out of the country.
Previously the administration had pegged the number of US service personnel in Syria to be around 500. But in the past few days, it has been reported that the Pentagon is likely to come clean about its skin in the game.
The last US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, will be remembered for his fervent anti-Assad stance and desire for President Obama to be bolder. He argued very persuasively earlier this month that it is time to get US forces out of the country.
He may get his wish. If there is movement this week in Geneva, it will come as a result of immense Russian cynicism dressed up as realpolitik.
Having watched previous sessions of the talks and heard the parties – the Syrian government and the unwieldy opposition the High Negotiating Council – spar, often through the media, I know too well the pattern that tends to emerge at these talks:
Russia and the US agree to do all they can to reach a compromise – Russia with Assad; the US with the opposition.
Yet each time talks collapse because Assad’s forces ratchet up their offensives and sieges.
The opposition, not unreasonably, says it can’t negotiate while its people are being starved and killed. Mediators call for pauses in the talks that can drag out for months. The pause then only ends when Assad wins whatever battle he’d used to stall the talks.
This happened first in Homs, then in towns around Damascus and later in Aleppo.
On the eve of these talks, Eastern Ghouta – a suburb of Damascus – is in the headlines. It is the latest pocket of opposition Assad is trying to extinguish. International observers will be watching carefully, albeit with no clout to change the dynamic, should he use the cover of these talks to accelerate attacks here.
Each time has Assad crashed the talks previously, Russia – rather than convince him to stop – has helped provide cover for him.
That was Obama’s understanding with Putin. The US believed Russia would do as it said it would – namely, telling Assad to stop fighting – and negotiate in good faith. It never happened.
When finally Russia did vote for UN Security Council Resolution 2254, calling for a political, not military solution and setting a time frame and process for Assad to end the war and transition from power, it seemed impossible the Russians could weasel out of their obligations again. Yet they did.
Even if Russia had told him to negotiate in good faith– for which there is no evidence they ever have – he would have had little reason to listen. He was winning.
For any democratic leader, victory at the cost Syria has paid – hundreds of thousands dead, more than half the population displaced, and close to 5 million refugees forced to flee the country – would be pyrrhic in the extreme. But not for Assad and his ally Vladimir Putin.
So cynical has Putin been in his calculations to dominate the terms of Syria’s peace he has tried, in vain so far, to shift talks from Geneva to a lakeside of his own in Russia: Sochi.
From the moment Obama decisively turned the tide of America’s influence in the Syria war by failing to enforce his red line after Assad used chemical weapons, Putin had a way to take over.
The Russian President wanted to show the world he stands behind allies, however odious. At the same time, he restored Russia’s position as a global power broker.
Invasions of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and other nefarious activities had gotten Russia expelled from the top table of the world’s most influential nations: the G8.
How different things are now. As parties get ready to arrive in Geneva, Putin recently held a meeting with all the key powers in the region and beyond, which was notable for Assad’s presence outside Syria for the first time in seven years.
That a man as paranoid as Assad could be lured from his safe Damascus lair is an indication of the influence Putin holds over him.
Putin also managed to draw Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to Sochi, where among other things they agreed that ISIS was defeated. Code: It’s time for the US to get out of Syria.
Of course, none of this means that either Turkey or Iran plans to eat out of Russia’s hand forever. Both countries have their own regional priorities that won’t always run concurrent with Putin’s. But for now they do.
The atmosphere now seems right for progress to finally take place at talks in Geneva – even if parts of the script seem familiar.
During President Trump’s recent tour of Asia, he spent enough minutes with Putin on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the State Department to release a joint communiqué stating the Presidents confirmed that “the ultimate political solution to the conflict must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254.” They also noted “President Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process”.
Yes, we have heard that before. But even Russia needs an end to the mayhem in Syria, and absent Trump’s opposition they seem poised to get it on their terms.