As the crushing stalemate between government and opposition forces in Syria continues, the prominence of the agreement reached between Russian, American and regional officials in Geneva in June 2012 grows in importance.
The Geneva Agreement, as it is known, was produced with the participation of foreign ministers from the permanent members of the UN Security Council and several other countries, who “agreed on principles and guidelines for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” It proposed a transitional government for Syria comprised of officials from the regime and the opposition.
Less than a week ago week ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed the centrality of the Geneva understandings to a diplomatic agreement on Syria.
"We are both going to go back, we are going to explore those possibilities, and we are going to talk again about [whether] any of those other avenues could conceivably be pursued," explained Kerry after seeing Lavrov in Brussels.
“Everybody’s first choice is a political resolution along the lines of the Geneva communique and everybody is hopeful that somehow through changes of mind with some country or interventions by others, it will be possible to be able to find a way forward to that end.”
He said that while there might be a difference of opinion between Russia and the United States about when and how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might leave office, "I don't think there's a difference of opinion that his leaving may either be inevitable or necessary to be able to have a solution."
But, he stressed: "I would say to you that's it's a very difficult road. … No one should think there is an easy way to move forward on this.
"What I did suggest to everybody was that we therefore need to all be thinking about how we can get to the negotiating table to avoid an implosion of Syria, which would be the worst consequence."
Lavrov, for his part, explained that the Geneva agreement could "not be interpreted in various ways; it has no ambiguity. Everyday more people are killed. However I see a growing understanding of the urgency to go from calls for election to real actions. That is why I hope we will see concrete actions on everybody's side," he said.
Yet diplomatic ambiguity — centering in this case on the future of Assad — is at the heart of any agreed-upon process that promises to move Syria's national and humanitarian debacle from bloody but ultimately inconsequential changes on the battlefield towards a political solution.
Those who view the Geneva document as a road map written in stone are missing this vital point. Some who oppose the regime argue that Assad has no place in a managed transition. Others, including some who believe only in a military solution and want to scuttle a diplomatic option that includes the regime, maintain the opposite. In such hands, the Geneva text threatens to become less an avenue to progress than a diplomatic dead end — and a weapon in the hands of one antagonist or the other.
Such a development brings to mind the Talmudic interpretations of UN Resolution 242 — remember the esoteric dispute over the significance of language calling for an Israeli withdrawal from [the] territories captured in June 1967?
Even the Bible is not infallible, nor does the path to understanding it result from its literal reading. So, too, with the Geneva document, which is first and foremost a diplomatic expression of an incremental, emerging Russian-American consensus on containing and resolving the conflict.
Most players on either side of the battlements fear such an outcome for their own reasons. But too close or literal a reading of the Geneva understandings is unnecessary if a diplomatic outcome is favored. Assad, in his January 2013 speech and former opposition president Moaz al-Khatib, as well as Tehran, have noted interest in a political dialogue. Geneva, as Kerry himself implied in his Brussels remarks, offers the only hope of a diplomatic path that leaves the country intact. Bitter and esoteric disputes about its details in this context are all but irrelevant, and even counterproductive. Argument over the precise meaning of the text not only misses this important point but also risks discrediting the creation of an effective, joint US-Russian plan and distracting attention into fruitless debates about the real intentions of Geneva's authors. As Kerry himself acknowledged, “you have Assad and you have the opposition, and until they come to some kind of an assessment of what they’re willing to do here, this remains a very, very difficult diplomatic initiative to achieve.”
It is enough to say that a diplomatic solution entails Washington “walking back” its pre-emptive demand for Assad’s departure and Moscow’s support for the regime’s pre-eminence. Geneva is the first way station along this road, a hesitant step in a long journey that has only just begun.
Far better to increase the pace than to argue over steps already taken.