Here’s What Can Save the Syrian Peace Talks

The Syria peace conference is off to a rough start today. The parties were invited to make short, 7 minute opening statements. For the most part, everyone stuck to Ban Ki Moon’s schedule. Then Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem took the microphone. He droned on and on, using less than constructive language. Ban was forced interrupted him. A rather awkward exchange ensued (starting at minute 22 of the video below).

This was a less than auspicious kick-off to a peace conference.

Perhaps, though, the greatest challenge is that the two most important conveners of this conference can’t seem to agree on a basic premise of the talks.  The ostensible goal of the talks is to agree to a transitional government that would replace the current regime, but is acceptable to both sides.  John Kerry is adamant that Bashar al Assad have no place in this transitional government. Russia disagrees. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in his statement, argued that the conference should “refrain from any attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.”  That fundamental sticking point may undermine the entire peace talks.

Still, the peace talks would not be considered a complete failure if the sides agree to unfettered humanitarian access to besieged populations inside Syria. There are 9.3 million people inside Syria who need some form of humanitarian relief. Fighting and bureaucratic roadblocks have prevented humanitarian relief from reaching  many people in need.

A basic agreement that guarantees humanitarian access to populations in need is one of the UN’s key goals for the conference. This does not require a grand political bargain between the warring factions, meaning this goal is actually achievable. It is also something that the Security Council has previously called for, so it has the buy in the of the major players.

If an agreement on humanitarian access can be brokered in Switzerland, then there would be at least one tangible positive outcome from this conference.