Crucial Syria Meeting in Geneva

Foreign Ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are gathering in Geneva tomorrow for what is arguably a last chance effort to forge a political or diplomatic de-escalation of the Syria crisis.

On the ground in Syria, things are as bad as they have ever been: Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes throughout the country over the past three days; Bashar Al Assad told his cabinet this week that Syria is in a state of war; and Turkey is building up its military forces along the Syrian border. Meanwhile, the UN Observer mission has been grounded for over a week because they are unable to do their job without getting shot at.

With his Six Point Plan dead, Kofi Annan has floated a new proposal to head off a deepening civil war by creating a transitional government of national unity that would (presumably) include members of the Syrian opposition and members of the ruling Baath party but not Bashar al Assad.  This is what is to be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting in Geneva. And, as has always been the case, Russia holds most of the cards. If Russia’s support for this plan is anything less than enthusiastic, a political transition to a post-Assad Syria is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

So far, there’s been mixed signals from Moscow. On the one hand, they say they are not wedded to Assad. On the other hand, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov just yesterday seemed to shoot down some of the key elements of this plan. (And also let it be known that he’s thoroughly vexed that the plan was leaked.)

Secretary Clinton is in Russia today to sit down with Lavrov before the two meet with a wider group in Geneva that includes all the permanent members of the Security Council plus  Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, the European Union and the Arab League, as well as Ban Ki-moon.  (Conspicuously absent are Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the US and Russia likely rejected, respectively).

This is arguably the most crucial diplomatic moment for Syria. This plan will succeed only if Russia wants it to succeed. If Russia remains unconvinced, a political transition in Syria is unlikely and the country will plunge ever deeper into a civil war.