The first day of the Geneva II talks, 22 January 2014, was marked by acrimonious speeches from representatives of both Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus and the Syrian rebels. The United Nations representative Lakhdar Brahimi is meeting the two sides separately and try to persuade them to move towards direct negotiations in Geneva on 23 January, or at least to agree to be in the same location. Brahimi is an impressive diplomat, quite possibly the best in the UN system for this kind of task, but there are doubts whether even he can bring the sides together.
Even if that does happen, the most that can be hoped for is that aid channels may be improved, maybe even to the extent of allowing temporary ceasefires. Yet in such a bitter civil war as this, moves such as these can be utilised by either or both sides to regroup and resupply. In any case, this is not really the crux of the Syrian situation. Two quite different aspects are far more significant.
A double proxy war
The first and most obvious is the conspicuous absence of Iran. Syria is, as several columns in this series have argued, a "double proxy" war in which two pairs of rival forces - Iran-Saudi Arabia most immediately, and the United States-Russia at a higher level - are proxy actors. The latter two are at Geneva, and show some evidence of determination to make progress; but Iran is missing.
Moreover, who else is present will rile Tehran - for the cast-list includes almost every Arab country across the middle east and north Africa (including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and of course Saudi Arabia). Beyond the Arab world, Turkey is there and even the Vatican, but not Iran!
Whatever the politics of the omission it makes nonsense of the talks - given Iran’s support for the Syrian regime, its links to Hizbollah, and the presence of Iranian paramilitaries inside Syria. Moreover, Rowhani appears keen to work more closely with the US and there are signs that he wants to see a scaling down of the war, not least because of the risk that Syria becomes another seat of radical Sunni paramilitaries (see "Syria, the peace margin", 16 January 2014).
The second, linked element relates to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war, which appears to have undergone significant changes in recent months. Though accurate and relevant information is not easily available, reasonably competent analysis indicates that inside Syria there are three quite distinct Islamist entities.
The first is the ISIL. This has the closest identity with al-Qaida's vision, strong connections with Sunni paramilitaries opposing the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq, and the most significant involvement of foreigners from across the region and beyond.
The ISIL is competent and disciplined. It seeks clear-cut Islamist governance in territories it controls. It may bring order with relatively low levels of corruption to towns, villages and city districts it takes over but the rigidity of its rule loses it popularity with a Syrian population that has - despite the authoritarianism of the Assad regime before the present war started - been more cosmopolitan in culture than many other Arab states,
The second entity is the Al-Nusra Front. This also follows the al-Qaida idea, but is rather less strict in its governance and has a smaller proportion of foreigners in its ranks.
What makes this mapping important is Saudi Arabia's shifting approach. In the past Riyadh appears to have provided support for ISIL and Al-Nusra, but it now focuses on providing aid to the groups acting under the aegis of the Islamic Council. It is, furthermore, doing so in a systematic manner that seeks to ensure that the Islamic Council becomes the dominant voice of opposition to Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia may have formally agreed to support the notion of a post-Assad transitional government, but it plan to ensure that this itself becomes no more than a transition to a far more Islamist Syria. Riyadh's success in that objective would curb the influence that Iran has gained since the Americans terminated the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in 2003, inadvertently boosting Tehran’s influence in Baghdad in the process.
A slim chance
The core reality is that Saudi Arabia is set on seeing the regime in Damascus fall, and Iran is equally adamant that it should survive. But Saudi Arabia is at Geneva II and Iran is not, thereby negating any possibility of substantive progress, even under Lakhdar Brahimi's skilled guidance. All else is little more than window-dressing.
Meanwhile this disastrous conflict claims more lives and further wrecks Syria. Can Russia work behind the scenes to bring Iran into the frame in some guise? Perhaps it can, with Sergey Lavrov’s personal warmth towards John Kerry one of the very positive aspects of a wretched situation. If not, then whatever fine words are spoken at Geneva, any progress will be meagre at best.