The local truces
As experienced mediators know, it helps to start with the (relatively) easy stuff. Solving one issue builds trust between the parties and increases the confidence that more intricate problems can be solved too. In the Syrian case the best issue to start with is probably the local truces.
At the moment there are many problems with local truces. The opposition complains that the government arrests and sometimes even executes people – in spite of prior agreements. They also complain that the government keeps blocking food supplies. The government complains about a divided opposition where people who oppose the armistice continue the violence.
Some of those transgressions may result from acting in bad faith but many are the result of miscommunication and lack of coordination. Much could be gained by changing from an ad hoc approach to a more structural approach in concluding and maintaining such truces. On the government side one could imagine one coordinator for each local truce. Those local coordinators would be overseen by a high level general in Damascus who is able to get things done across different army units. The UN would provide one or more special representatives for the truces who keep track of the developments and mediate when there are problems. The best way to deal with the divisions on the rebel side is to get things running well in those areas where they are not divided. That will make truces a more credible option and will put pressure on those rebels who oppose them. The UN representative should be an Arab general whose rank would enable him to solve problems with his Syrian counterpart. This should put him in a position to deal with spoilers on the government side.
As both the Syrian government and large segments of the opposition see the benefits of the truces it should be possible to solve the problems that arise.
The future of Syria
Focusing the negotiations on the departure of Assad in an early stage will nearly certain drive both parties into the trenches. People on both sides fear what would happen to them if the other side might win.
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"The UN representative should be an Arab general"
Neither elections nor a transitional government can solve this conflict. Just like in Northern Africa they will just create a new arena where the conflict is fought – while the demonstrations and armed attacks will continue. The conflict can only be solved with long and tough negotiations. The more the parties find common ground the less there is to fear.
On the other hand – once such negotiations decrease the tension – the question whether Assad should go will become less relevant. Many who hate him will see that improvements are possible while he is still there and many who see him as a guarantee for security will become less afraid of what will happen once he leaves.
Transitional governments have proved problematic in Northern Africa. As they are attacked by both sides they tend to be so weak that under their supervision, the economic and security problems of the country steadily deteriorate. Neither are they capable of introducing the reforms that are necessary to really end the dictatorship.
Transitional governments work best in situations with warlords who are respected by nobody. But in situations like Syria a large part of the population supports one of the sides. Instead of looking for the rare and often isolated figures who are acceptable to both sides it may be better to gradually introduce opposition people in the Assad government - while simultaneously removing its most controversial members.
The first step towards a common future will be to restore belief that peace is possible. This will involve both small successful steps and discussions about the big picture. The next step will be the discussion of concrete policies that should be changed: from security reforms to economic reforms. Only when in that area concrete results have been booked will it make sense to discuss political reforms and democratization beyond what is needed for the first two goals.
Given the workload it is unlikely that the negotiations will bring a solution within a few days. However, if the mediating countries can resist the temptation of a quick fix with a transitional government, chances are good that the conference can bring hope that in the end a solution will be found.