Without oversimplifying the situation, the Geneva II process is good news for al-Assad. The make-up of the Syrian official delegation sent to Montreux is telling, and confirms that nearly three years after the beginning of the uprisings in the country, the Syrian president has not changed his position on the conflict in any way.
Let's face it: on the surface, the Geneva II peace talks between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition seem to be dead from the start. If any consensus is to be reached on Geneva II, it is indeed its predetermined outcome – which Western, Arab and even Russian officials acknowledge mezzo voce.
At the very least, a diplomatic communiqué will likely be issued with a commitment to future negotiations. It's less likely that the Assad regime could offer a symbolic concession to the Coalition by inviting it to join the current government if it renounces armed opposition. The most probable scenario is an agreement on the lowest possible level, that is, local ceasefires, some semblance of humanitarian corridors or the release of prisoners.
Early this Wednesday the head of Syrian diplomacy Walid Muallem set the tone of the upcoming talks by judging his future interlocutors to be "traitors." With this rather pessimistic assessment, what can we reasonably expect from the major actors?
Without oversimplifying the situation, the Geneva II process is good news for al-Assad. The make-up of the Syrian official delegation sent to Montreux is telling, and confirms that nearly three years after the beginning of the uprisings in the country, the Syrian president has not changed his position on the conflict in any way. Mostly made up of senior diplomats, it shows that al-Assad understands the ongoing crisis not as a popular uprising or a civil war, but as a purely external issue that must be settled between states.
In fact, al-Assad and his allies are already looking beyond Geneva II. Tehran, whose invitation to the talks was annulled, will avoid using its influence from the sidelines to reach an agreement in Geneva this week. The absence of Iran allows al-Assad to continue trying to define Syria's political transition on his own terms. Believing that he is winning the conflict, al-Assad will avoid making concessions that diminish his power within Syria. Change is unlikely without Iran having a stake in the process and its outcome, as Moscow alone cannot (or does not want to) move al-Assad to make serious concessions. Also, the chaotic state of the Syrian opposition evidently works in al-Assad's favor. For him, then, the negotiation process is largely a waiting game as he consolidates his military position further.
But the most successful aspect of the Syrian regime's game has been its "war on narrative." By focusing on a "let's fight terrorism" approach, Damascus has managed to somewhat rattle the cohesion of the Westerners; while the fighting has heightened instability in the region, American and European citizens are streaming into Syria to take up jihad. In other words, Western support for the Syrian opposition is growing increasingly wary of the role played by foreign militants - something Russian officials have continuously hammered away at the U.S. and the Europeans since the early days of the conflict. Russia in particular has reasons for concern over the growing number of jihad followers among foreigners in Syria, where over 600 Russian fighters have come over to the opposition. On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, the last thing the Russian leaders want is a major terrorist attack. As far as France is concerned, the Minister of the Interior announced a few days ago that 250 French citizens are currently fighting in Syria, while as many are being indoctrinated via social networks or proselyte imams. Geneva II peace talks thus might strengthen al-Assad in his role as "the fiercest opponent of jihadists" – with the West's blessing.
Geneva II's stakes also go beyond the Syrian framework. Washington's core interest in the Middle East at the moment is to preserve and advance negotiations with Iran. This goal sits at odds with the publicly stated U.S. objective to ensure that al-Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well become one of the many pieces in the bargain between Washington and Tehran.
Neither the al-Assad regime, nor the Syrian opposition can conduct this war without the support of their regional and international power brokers. Obviously, any negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict requires overcoming the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is where diplomacy may be most useful.