On the surface, the upcoming Geneva II peace talks between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition seem dead on arrival, if they even happen at all. The Syrian opposition, already deeply fractured, is now in violent internal conflict between the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, and the ideologically neutral Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Syrian National Coalition, the primary political wing of the opposition, is threatening to withdraw from the peace talks, which begin Wednesday, January 22, if the United Nations does not rescind its invitation for Iran to participate. All the while, Assad has announced that a negotiated end to his presidency “is not under discussion” at the talks, which calls into question what exactly the negotiating parties will be discussing and highlights just how far apart the key belligerents in the Syrian civil war are from accepting a political solution to the conflict.
The conventional wisdom is that under these circumstances, the U.S. push to build consensus and find common ground between the Assad regime and the deeply fractured opposition is deeply naïve and divorced from realities on the ground. But for all the talk about regime-opposition negotiations, the most important conversation at Geneva this week doesn’t involve anyone from Syria. Instead of trying to build consensus for a political solution on Syria from the inside-out, the United States, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, appears to be trying to build consensus for a deal from the outside-in. By working out a deal between the key power brokers on Syria’s future, first the United States and Russia, and then widening the circle to include critical regional players, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the international community can eventually force a deal on the belligerents to end the Syrian civil war.This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.