Before it had even started, Geneva II was being written off as a disaster. John Kerry will shoulder much of the blame. Yet the US expects more from the meeting than it is acknowledging publicly.
When he sits down at the Geneva II negotiating table in Montreux, Switzerland, US Secretary of State John Kerry will have few tools at his disposal.
"Kerry's basic cards here tend to be whatever leverage aid gives him," said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior US official who served in the Office of the Secretary of State and Department of Defense. "It's not particularly credible that Kerry's coming with military options or that the US has a clear opposition faction to back. It's certainly not clear that we have the ability to intervene or leverage any of the parties in strong ways," he told DW.
Kerry has chimed in with equally bleak words. "None of us have an expectation," he said on January 12 after a Friends of Syria meeting in Paris. "No one should write cynically about Geneva II somehow failing if it doesn't come out on day one or day two or day three with a full agreement. We don't expect that."
What he does expect is for negotiations to "begin to get the parties at the table," he said. According to US experts, however, he hopes to do more than just that at Geneva II.
The Russian wedge
Jeremy Shapiro, who advised former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on US policy in the Middle East and North Africa, says Kerry has a real chance of driving a "wedge" between Russia and Syria. "That shouldn't be too hard to do," the current Brookings Institute fellow told DW. "The Russians are actually quite interested in this Geneva process, and the Syrian government is not."
If the US can get Russia in a place where it wants Syria to make commitments at the conference, and the Syrians will not, he says, the US will have more power with Russia. The US has successfully used this strategy before, Shapiro says, to push Moscow from Tehran. "When the Iranians betrayed the process, they betrayed the Russians."
Iran is the glaring absence from the conference of 30 countries. The initial invitation followed by the cold shoulder from UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon prompted Iran's foreign minister to lash out and experts worldwide to question whether Geneva II can be meaningful without Syria's closest regional ally.
Shapiro views the decision in light of a US Congress still angry at Kerry for concessions he made on Iran's nuclear program. "If John Kerry were seen in [Syrian] negotiations as conceding too much to Iran, people would say there's a quid pro quo on the nuclear negotiations," he said. With Iran out of the pictures, any concessions will be to Syria and Russia alone. Congress, Shapiro added, does not hold a coherent enough position on Syria for Kerry to face similar post-negotiation criticism.
Syrian National 'Coalition'?
Back when former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russia and the UN's peace envoy to Syria first floated the idea of Geneva II in late 2012, the idea that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) could negotiate with the Syrian government on somewhat square terms was a tenable one. Today, America's political ally in Syria is in shambles.
"When you say, 'The SNC,' is it really, 'The'?" asks former official Cordesman. The group, says the current Burke Chair holder at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is weak, unstable and divided. "Whether the opposition at Geneva II will be around at Geneva III is a pretty good question."
Also deteriorating are the relations between America and its Syrian ally.
"US credibility has been decimated among the opposition," says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. US President Barack Obama's decision to walk back from a punitive strike on the Assad regime after revelations of chemical weapons use, he told DW, "hurt a lot of the trust between the US and the opposition."
"Particularly on Syria, the administration's marks are not good. There's the chemical weapons accord, but I don't think that was the result of our diplomacy," Tabler said.
Just to get the SNC to attend, the US and UK were reported to have threatened it with the withdrawal of aid.
Were the US to broker an agreement with the Western-backed opposition group, it isn't clear how much influence it would have with other groups - some of them Islamist - opposed to Syria's government.
A first step
What, then, can Kerry accomplish in Montreux? Not much, the three experts agree. Beyond prying Russia from Damascus, Kerry will try to thaw relations between the US and the SNC and will push for the few things all governments at Geneva II seem to agree upon: humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians, further prisoner swaps between the government and opposition forces as well as limited ceasefires. The latter is to be tested in Aleppo during the conference.
And while Geneva II and John Kerry will be critiqued harshly for limited gains in Montreux, Shapiro at the Brookings Institute considers it a mistake to judge Kerry by any metric other than: "Has he made progress?"
For the first time, Syria's opposition and government are talking publicly. The US will also likely push for a permanent mechanism whereby future meetings, whether with or without Damascus or the SNC, will take place - what Shapiro calls "Geneva 1.5".
Finally, berating Kerry during his first year in office for not solving Syria's war or other Middle East issues "is like saying an ER doctor has a high rate of death on his watch," Shapiro says.
Cordesman agrees. "In a lot of cases, these meetings, whatever their sort of titular purpose, are more to ensure there's some sort of dialogue - that lines of communication stay open and you make limited progress," he said.
"That doesn't always produce quick results."