Today’s opening of talks on Syria, brokered largely by Russia and the United States, is an important step toward ending the civil war in that critical Middle Eastern country.
The talks in Switzerland, under the auspices of the United Nations, will include representatives of the government of President Bashar Assad and some of the Syrian rebel groups as well as some of the international parties backing the government or the opposition. The negotiations are essential if there are to be any prospects of ending the destructive three-year conflict.
The stakes are not only the lives and well-being of the 23 million Syrians, but also general Middle East peace. Syria has borders with Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, all of which have been involved in the war and provided assistance to Syrian refugees, and all of which have problems of their own.
The question of whether Iran would participate in the talks almost derailed them. Iran is a significant supporter of the Assad government, providing military aid directly and through the Lebanese Shiite political and military organization Hezbollah. As an important player in the Syrian affair, it should be present among the 39 countries invited. Excluding it is as unrealistic as excluding Israel. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran and Russia supported its invitation, but some of the Syrian rebels and the United States opposed Iran’s presence. The U.N. withdrew Iran’s invitation Monday, which will make success even harder to achieve.
Barriers to reaching agreement among the Syrian participants include intransigence on the part of the Assad government, which has been emboldened by recent successes on the battlefield. The Syrian opposition continues to splinter, consisting of fighting elements in Syria — some fighting each other — and talking elements in safe exile outside the country. Politically, the opposition ranges from radical Sunni Islamists, including al-Qaida adherents, to secular opponents of the Assad family.
The challenge to the international godfathers at the conference, including France, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, will be to make it clear to the Syrians, of all stripes, that they need to stop fighting and heal and rebuild their country if there is to be one.
At least they have begun to talk.