Syrian civil war: towards an international Geneva-3 Conference?

“The U.N. will never abandon Syria even if it looks like mission impossible”, these are the words pronounced last 5 May by the U.N. peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to announce the start of new consultations with regional and domestic players in the hope of reviving the stalled dialogue over the Syrian conflict.

In fact, already on 24 April de Mistura had referred to the U.N. Security Council the need to negotiate a new political solution for the ongoing Syrian civil war that, notwithstanding the attempts made in January-February 2014 with the Geneva-2 Conference, still remains an open wound. The recent talks, mediated by the U.N. and including 20 regional and international players among which there is also the Islamic Republic of Iran, aim at finding a solution to end the crisis and assessing the progress by the end of June. In fact, because of its steady escalation and because of the dramatic increase in the number of civilian/military deaths, the Syrian conflict represents an urgent issue to be curbed and solved in order to restore peace and political equilibrium in both the country and the whole region.

The consultations of May 2015 represent the last attempt of global and regional players to find a solution for ending the Syrian bloodshed. Since 2012, these actors have come together, sitting around the negotiating table, in order to end this four years’ massacre that lasts since 2011 when it broke out on the wave of the Arab Springs of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Since then, anti-government street protests have turned into concrete political and military uprisings against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

As a consequence, on 30 June 2012, international and regional players decided to meet in Geneva (Geneva-1 Conference on Syria) to find the first political solution to the crisis: the U.N. backed “Action Group” on Syria, with representatives of the U.S., U.K., Russia and China, forged an agreement, formalized in a draft communiqué, outlining the steps for a “transitional government body with full executive powers” that would have included members of the Syrian government and of the opposition. Lakhdar Brahimi, appointed as the new U.N. peace envoy to Syria in August 2012, started to prepare an international conference in close cooperation with the U.S. and Russia in pursuit of the objectives decided in June. Both the Syrian government and the opposition would have been brought together at the conference of May 2013 but, because of some disaccords among them, the talks were postponed several times. Finally, in November 2013, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a new date for consultations (22 January). He described the Geneva-2 Conference, promoted by the U.S. and Russia, as the actualization of the Geneva communiqué and as “a vehicle for a peaceful transition” and for an agreement between the Syrian delegations. However, after only two rounds, the talks broke down in February since the Syrian government refused to discuss the opposition’s demands and, differently, pushed for focusing on fighting “terrorists” who are, in other words, the country’s rebel groups.

Following the events of February 2014, the Syrian conflict visibly escalated and the attitude of global and regional players toward the war showed to be discordant. For instance, on 22 May 2014 Russia and China, in support of Bashar al-Assad for strategic reasons, interests and in defense of the sovereignty principle against external interference, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have referred the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

Yet, the advance of the Islamic State (IS) during summer 2014 contributed to influence directly the development of the Syrian war: whereas the government continues to control the western zones, the eastern part is occupied by the IS. The rebels compete against or with governmental forces for the northern regions of Syria which include Aleppo, the provinces of Idleb and Hama. July 2014 represents the month with the highest record of civilian and military deaths. Currently, among the rebels of the region, the IS represents the hardest adversary of the Syrian regime. As a consequence, and contrarily to the beginning of 2014, the position of al-Assad has changed: in the light of several defeats witnessed by the governmental forces for the advance of the IS in summer 2014 and because of recent victories of some other Islamic militants, among which there is al-Nusra, the Syrian government has been weakened and shows to have less negotiating-power compared to January-February 2014.

The new consultations of May 2015 in Geneva took place within this difficult context. Since the Syrian conflict is showing no signals of arrest and since the Middle East as a whole is becoming almost everywhere a place of daily uprisings, revolts and massacres, the global powers feel the necessity to intervene for common purposes of defense, economy, regional, political and religious interests. Yet, in the same way as it happened for the Geneva-2 Conference, talks are going to be hampered by rival forces standing at the consultations. For instance, the participation of Iran, which represents one of the proudest supporters of the al-Assad’s regime, has intensified the discontent among many players that, to some extents, feel themselves menaced by the country or that support the opposing faction. At the same time, the rising influence of rebel groups such as the IS and al-Nusra in the country has shown to be incisive in shaping Syria’s destiny and, therefore, cannot be disregarded.

Considering this context and the ongoing events, to what extent can domestic, regional and external conjunctions influence the outcomes of the recent consultations in Geneva? On one hand, how can the international community sit at the negotiating table and decide upon Syrian matters without the representatives of the most influential rebel forces of the region? On the other hand, how can it deal with the contrasting demands and interests of Iran? In the light of all these obstacles, we can maintain that it is too early to foresee the results of the ongoing consultations and to predict whether or not the international community will proceed towards a possible Geneva-3 Conference for ending the Syrian civil war.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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