Five days into Syria peace talks, they are already over. Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy heading the peace process, announced from the talks in Geneva that negotiations are on "temporary pause" for the next three weeks.
There was never much hope for the talks, but even by those low standards, going on "pause" after less than a week is pretty rough. Coverage of why the talks faltered will understandably focus on the disarray and drama in Geneva, and there will be plenty of finger-pointing blaming the US or Russia or the United Nations for tactical missteps.
But the talks were always doomed by deeper structural problems that, at this point, make it functionally impossible for the parties to this conflict to come together. De Mistura himself seems to have understood this, and it doesn't mean the talks were pointless (even if they fail, they still serve a real purpose, which I discuss below). But it's helpful to see the structural factors that are perpetuating one of the worst and most costly wars in recent history.
1) Rebels need humanitarian concessions, but Assad has every incentive to refuse
This dispute looked like it might torpedo the talks before they even began; Syrian rebel and opposition groups were threatening to boycott unless Bashar al-Assad's forces met some humanitarian preconditions, namely that they stop bombing and starving civilians in rebel-held areas.
The Assad regime refused, and the rebels held out until the very last moments. They eventually did attend but refused direct talks, and it seems very likely to have contributed to the breakdown in talks.
It's not hard to see why the opposition would demand these things, beyond even the obvious reason that Assad's crimes against civilians are a humanitarian disaster that objectively should end as soon as possible. Both armed rebels and civilian oppositionists need to worry about their own internal politics.
The peace talks exclude hard-line jihadist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which are pretty powerful. Rebel groups that are participating need to be careful not to look weak or, worse, like they're selling out Syrians by participating in sham peace talks, or they risk losing support to groups like al-Nusra.
But Assad has no real reason to meet these demands and in fact benefits from defying them. His latest offensives have been making some real gains, which he wants to keep up so as to give himself the strongest possible position at the negotiating table. If rebels boycott in protest, Assad wins, by getting to sell himself as the responsible party versus the anti-peace rebels. If rebels show up, Assad wins, because this will deepen strains between rebels who participate and those who don't, potentially splitting the opposition.
"The opposition are well aware that however reasonable and justified such demands may be, they will not be met," Aron Lund writes in a very good Carnegie Endowment primer on the talks. "The Syrian president is not going to give anything away for free before the talks begin."
It's a really difficult problem, and it makes it hard to even get peace talks started, much less ever reach a deal. Meanwhile, it has put the US is the position of pressuring rebels to drop their preconditions for a humanitarian ceasefire, which makes the US look like it is selling out the rebels and Syrian civilians, hurting its ability to push the rebels again in the future.
2) Can't keep the Assad regime but can't get rid of it either
It's not that Assad is himself so crucially important. But he is at the middle of a fundamental disagreement over Syria's future, one to which there is, as yet, no clear middle ground. The question of whether he stays or goes has become a question about the degree to which Syria does or doesn't return to the prewar status quo, and right now the major parties of this war just can't agree on that.
Syria's opposition, after years of enduring Assad's barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and the forced disappearances and torture chambers before them, have said over and over they could never accept that Assad stay in office.
But it's not just that rebel leaders won't accept it; Assad has so completely alienated the country's Sunni majority that his very ability to govern the country, in peace or war, may well be gone. His policies are such a driver of sectarianism that he makes the country ungovernable, and peace is simply impossible while he remains in office. So when people say that Assad has lost legitimacy and has to go, that's not an opinion but rather an analytical fact about Syria.
At the same time, Russia and especially Iran, whether we like it or not, are so involved in the conflict that they have effective veto power. And they see the Assad regime as essential for preserving their interests in Syria, and have demonstrated they're willing to accept significant losses to keep him in power. There are hints that those countries might be willing to push out Assad, but both would almost certainly want to replace him with another Alawite, thus keeping the regime basically the same.
And it's not even clear that Russia or Iran can push out Assad. Moscow reportedly tried to remove him in December and failed. The Syrian regime still stands behind Assad, and Russia ultimately can't tell them what to do. The fact that Assad can play Russia and Iran off one another — there have been reports of long-running tension between them over Syria — makes it easier for him to stand up to them.
The only other obvious option, supporting rebels until they can topple Assad by force, would invite a disaster potentially even worse than we have now.
Syrians are already suffering mass displacement and, with state services in many places nonexistent, face extreme poverty, disease outbreaks, and hunger. They cannot endure the collapse of what little of the state remains. In the majority of the country where Assad has lost control, territory is divided among many different rebel groups. Were Assad to fall, they would lose their common enemy and could turn on one another. In such conditions, ISIS would almost certainly come out ahead.
Many warn that should Syria's government collapse, it would follow Libya's path to chaos and infighting. But this may actually understate the problem. It's more likely, perhaps, that Syria would look like Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the collapse of the pro-Soviet government led to years of civil war among rebel groups, many of whom became more like warlords, and provided the conditions for the rise of the Taliban.
3) Can't solve Syria without solving the Iran-Saudi proxy war driving it
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been enemies since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which directly challenged the Saudis' political and religious authority. But Saddam Hussein's Iraq acted as something of a balancer by threatening them both. When Saddam fell in 2003, it opened a power vacuum that both countries have tried to fill, beginning a competition that is now a region-wide cold war.
That's a big part of why both Saudi Arabia and Iran are so directly involved in propping up both sides of the Syrian war. Worse, both are fighting one another to the last Syrian, more than willing to see this country burn in order to keep it from the other's influence.
So peace isn't possible in Syria until both Saudi Arabia and Iran back down from supporting their proxy forces there. And when you talk to people in the US government involved in the Syria process, they are often just as focused on addressing the Iran-Saudi issue as they are on Syria-specific dynamics.
That's not an impossible problem to solve, but it's much bigger than even Syria. Saudi Arabia is bombing civilians in Yemen to fight a Shia insurgency it sees as Iranian puppets, Iran is supporting Shia militias in Iraq that are committing atrocities, and both are involved in politics in Baghdad and Beirut. It is a lot to untangle.
And the proxy war is getting worse. Over the new year, Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric who'd expressed support for Iran, Iranian protesters sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the two countries broke off formal relations.
In order to find a Syrian peace deal, the world has to roll back the worsening Iran-Saudi proxy war and then get Iranian and Saudi leaders to a place where they can not just talk to one another but find a mutually agreeable peace deal for Syria. Given that both countries are so invested in hard-line positions against one another, and given that their conflict is wrapped up in other problems like Yemen and Iraq, this is a very daunting task.
It's still worth having Syria peace talks even if they're doomed
The primary purpose of peace talks, of course, is to get a peace deal to end the war. But absent that, talks can serve a smaller but still important function: open channels of communication that make it easier for the parties to manage the conflict such that its toll is a little less horrible.
Aron Lund, in his Carnegie Endowment primer on the peace talks, suggested that UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura is trying to accomplish exactly this.
"While no one expects any significant progress toward a resolution of the Syria conflict to emerge from the meetings," Lund wrote, "de Mistura is hard at work trying to establish Geneva III as a framework for conflict management and the mitigation of Syrians’ horrific suffering."
Peace talks, even if they fail, will do something that otherwise would never have happened: All the different parties will be in the same bunch of hotel meeting rooms together. That can make it much easier for them to talk about, say, allowing some humanitarian access, or other conflict management questions that won't end the war but will make it a little less horrible.
And that can bring other long-term benefits.
"De Mistura seems to be aiming to turn Geneva III [peace talks] into a mechanism for longer-term discussions on several tracks, which would allow for factions to interact in different constellations and on different topics," Lund wrote.
So, yes, peace talks currently appear to be doomed for the foreseeable future and will likely remain that way. But even if the miracle breakthrough never comes, talks are still worth having.