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Attempting the impossible

The peace talks on Syria are the only way out for the disastrously deadlocked situation

Inevitably, skepticism and distrust are going to be the prevalent notes at the conference on Syria, which began on Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland. But this diplomatic effort is the only possible alternative to stop a war that has now been going on for three years, with a death toll of more than 100,000, and which is still subjecting the population to inconceivable suffering.

At first sight, the conference looks doomed to failure. There are no deadlines, or timetables. The document laying out the agenda, which was agreed upon in June 2012, proposes certain objectives — a transitional government and a process of national dialogue, which would lead to a revision of the legal system, and to free elections. But in view of the current situation on the ground, this list seems designed for another country altogether.

What’s more, the participants are coming to the conference with completely opposing objectives. The regime of Bashar al-Assad wants the talks to be centered on the fight against terrorism (a term it uses to describe all opposition). And, of course, the regime considers it out of the question to yield an inch in terms of power, as is being demanded by opposing forces, which are already fragmented into factions fighting against each other, both inside and outside Syria, and which are increasingly being neutralized by jihadists of different sorts, including affiliates of Al Qaeda.

That said, after almost a year of failed attempts and Wednesday’s acrimonious exchanges in Montreux, it cannot be entirely ruled out that the rival factions may agree to listen to one another, together with their principal sponsors, which include Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Fortunately, the inexplicable diplomatic blunder involving Iran, which was invited and then uninvited to the conference by the UN secretary general in less than 24 hours, does not seem to have had important consequences. Whether it has a place at the negotiating table or not, Iran is an essential part of the problem, and thus of the solution. In this sense, the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, and the joint efforts of the White House and the Kremlin, offer the prospect of hope on the horizon.

Although the regime has strengthened its positions, it is clear that neither side can win a clear military victory — all of the parties involved in the conflict are losing. The priority objective is to achieve a general ceasefire (truces are already making an appearance at the local level) or at least to establish guidelines for supplying help to the desperate civilian population.

The initial meeting arranged for Montreux — which is scheduled to continue in Geneva — is only the beginning of a process that seems likely, in the best of cases, to be a long and frustrating one. But at this stage of this disastrous situation, all that can be done is to attempt the impossible.

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