Stopping the Syria Contagion

WASHINGTON, DC – Syria’s civil war has become a wretchedly complicated problem. As the parties prepare to meet in Geneva for the second round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks, the government has launched vicious barrel-bomb attacks on Aleppo and other cities; more moderate Islamist rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, are openly at war with Al Qaeda affiliates; and Al Qaeda-linked groups are now fighting among themselves.

Meanwhile, the war’s spillover effects are worsening. The fighting has heightened instability in the region; US and European citizens are streaming into Syria to take up jihad; and there is a growing consensus that the post-World War I Middle East boundaries are coming undone. Indeed, the viability of Syria, a multi-ethnic state, is being threatened by multiple armed groups supported by external sponsors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, the United States, Turkey, France, and many private donors – who themselves have conflicting aims.

Here are three ways to simplify the equation and maximize the chances that the parties to the Geneva II peace conference will be able to agree on more than the desirability of someday holding a Geneva III.

First, the most important contribution that this conference can make to the possibility of a negotiated settlement and a political transition in Syria is to change the principal parties’ incentives. In the run-up to Geneva II, each party has sought to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table by killing as many adversaries and holding or regaining as much ground as possible. The task now for would-be peace brokers is to halt that dynamic by agreeing on criteria for participation in whatever elections will eventually be held, regardless of whether President Bashar al-Assad remains in power until then.