BERLIN – The Geneva II conference on Syria, set to begin in Montreux, Switzerland, on January 22, is unlikely to achieve its goal of forming a transitional governing authority with full executive powers. But what it can do is launch a much-needed political process and, more important, produce a ceasefire agreement between government and opposition forces. Only when the fighting has stopped can Syria make genuine progress toward a political transition.
Of course, Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has become a potent force on the ground, and the Nusra Front will not and should not be represented in Montreux – not least because they will not feel bound by any agreement. But this should not serve as an excuse not to pursue a ceasefire. After all, even stopping the fighting between regime forces and some armed groups – that is, those that associate themselves with the Syrian National Coalition, or are at least willing to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the partly Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front – would be a major achievement.
A ceasefire is critical, because the fighting serves the interests of the most brutal elements on both sides of the conflict. This includes the core leadership of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is now supported by Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, as much as the ISIS, which is composed largely of non-Syrian fighters who are unconcerned about rebuilding the country or safeguarding its people’s future.
As in any civil war, such entrepreneurs of violence become increasingly likely to carry the day the longer the conflict endures. They feed on their own atrocities or on those of their opponents to win support through fear rather than conviction – using videos to raise funds and recruit new members.