Two recent events are muddying the waters in the Syria conflict. The first is the government’s delay in handing over its chemical arms for destruction; that calls into question both the government’s honesty in pledging to do so and Russia’s seriousness in pushing the Bashar Assad regime to dispose of the weapons.
The second, illustrating dangerous chaos on the rebel side, is the expulsion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from al-Qaeda’s worldwide network. The United States considers ISIS the darkest side of Islamist terrorism. The Syrian opposition’s representation in the recently adjourned peace talks in Switzerland included no ground fighters from the conflict.
Al-Qaeda’s disassociation from ISIS — which is more extreme than its affiliate, the al-Nusra Front — means that even if the exiled and more-structured opposition to the Assad government could be brought to an agreement, the more radical ISIS would fight on.
Both developments diminish prospects for the talks’ success in ending the killing, destruction, and hardship in Syria, and the continuing flow of refugees across its borders into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The parties are scheduled to resume talks next week, although neither side is pledged firmly to appear.
Failure of the talks would mean that the violence and disruption will continue, and that pressure on Russia, the United States, and other nations to find a solution will rise again. Russia needs to pressure the Assad government to fulfill its pledge to hand over its chemical arms.
At the same time, the United States needs to work with its allies, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to put heat on the Syrian opposition to participate meaningfully in the talks. Aid would be the tool in both cases.
The fate of a critically located state is at stake — with no end of death, destruction, and risk in sight.