This week’s talks on Syria, brokered largely by the United States and Russia, represent an important step toward ending the civil war in that critical Middle Eastern country.
The discussions in Switzerland, under the auspices of the United Nations, include representatives of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and some rebel groups, as well as international parties that back the government or the opposition. The negotiations are essential to ending the destructive three-year conflict.
The stakes include not only the lives and well-being of the 23 million Syrians, but also Middle East peace. Syria borders Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey; all have been involved in the war and provided aid to Syrian refugees, and all have problems of their own.
The question of whether Iran would participate in the talks almost derailed them. Iran is a key supporter of the Assad government, providing military aid directly and through the Lebanese Shiite political and military terrorist organization Hezbollah.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran, and Russia supported the gesture, but some Syrian rebels and the United States opposed Iran’s presence. The United Nations withdrew Iran’s invitation Monday; that could make success at the talks harder to achieve.
Other barriers to agreement include intransigence by the Assad government, which has been emboldened by recent successes on the battlefield. The Syrian opposition continues to splinter, consisting of fighting elements in Syria — some fighting each other — and talking elements in safe exile outside the country. Politically, the opposition ranges from radical Sunni Islamists, including al-Qaeda adherents, to secular opponents of the Assad family.
The challenge to the international participants at the conference, which also include France, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, will be to make it clear to Syrians of all stripes that they need to stop fighting, and to heal and rebuild their country if there is to be one. At least they are talking.