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BEIRUT – With stakes high and expectations low, Syria's government and its opponents sit down face-to-face at an international peace conference this week for the first time — muscled to the negotiating table by foreign powers that fear the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings may engulf the entire region in sectarian war.
The opening of the so-called Geneva 2 conference Wednesday in Switzerland reflects the unanimity in the international community about the urgent need to bring a halt to a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people, touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades and unleashed sectarian hatreds that have sent tremors across the Middle East.
Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that the prospects of achieving such a lofty goal any time soon are slim at best.
Both the government and the opposition have suffered enormous losses, but even now, neither side appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position. At this point, just getting the antagonists into the same room to start what is expected to be a long process that could drag on for years would be perceived as a success. Proponents also argue that the conference could provide an opening to improve access for humanitarian aid and help secure local cease-fires that would curb at least some of the carnage.
But a larger question looms over the whole endeavor: How can the opposition, represented by the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, enforce any agreement reached in Geneva?
The umbrella group, which draws together various anti-government factions, has little credibility with rebels inside Syria and no sway over the most powerful armed groups — including Islamic extremists — who have publicly rejected negotiating with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syria's crisis began in March 2011 in the heyday of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept away authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Unlike the others, Syria's leadership responded to largely peaceful protests for political reform with a withering crackdown. That slowly forced the opposition to take up arms and gave birth to a civil war that has also spawned a proxy battle between regional Shiite Muslim power Iran and Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
It's a multilayered conflict with a crowded stable of players.
In the government camp, Assad's army is backed by military advisers from Iran and guerrilla fighters from allied Shiite militias like Lebanon's Hezbollah as well as smaller Iraqi groups. On the opposition side, an array of rebel brigades running the spectrum from moderate to ultraconservative leads the way numerically, although al-Qaida-linked groups bolstered by foreign fighters from Arab states and Europe have emerged as one of the most powerful forces.
The rise of the jihadi factions has altered perceptions of the conflict, particularly in Western capitals worried about the threat of Islamic extremism. Leaders in the U.S. and Europe who once spoke boldly about Assad's days being numbered have since balked at boosting their support for the rebellion, particularly in the form of weapons shipments, for fear they may inadvertently empower radicals.
The cumulative effect of the war over nearly three years has been disastrous. Syria lies in ruins, its economy shattered, its rich social fabric shredded.
A staggering list of figures testifies to the immensity of the conflict: 130,000 dead; 2.3 million registered refugees; an additional 6.5 million displaced inside the country; and at least 17 confirmed cases of polio, a crippling disease that was eradicated from the country more than a decade ago.
The start of the Geneva conference marks the culmination of nearly nine months of diplomatic arm-twisting to bring the parties together.
The U.S. and Russia, who back opposing sides in the conflict, have been trying since early May to coax the opposition and the government to the negotiating table. Neither side, however, showed any interest in compromise, and the meeting was repeatedly delayed.
Over that period, an already messy war cut deeper. Tens of thousands of people died. A chemical weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in August killed hundreds. Islamic extremists became an increasingly dominant force in the opposition-held north.
But the front lines of the war itself, despite tactical advances here and there, have remained largely locked in place since last March. The rebels control much of northern Syria along the border with Turkey, while the government has a firm grip on the capital and the corridor running north through the city of Homs to the Mediterranean coast.
The rebels seem incapable of conquering the rest of the country, while the government doesn't appear strong enough to reclaim the territory it has lost. At the same time, neither side is exhausted to the point that it feels it has to cut a deal, analysts say.
"I don't think that if either the Syrian opposition or the Assad regime really had their say in this, they would show up in Geneva," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "I think the interests and the calculations of the two sides are clearly not in alignment with a political settlement."
The opposition coalition decided only late Saturday to attend the talks, bowing to immense pressure from its U.S. and its European allies. In a sign of how divisive the issue is within the opposition, a third of the coalition's members boycotted the vote.
Misgivings abound among those in the opposition that the Geneva talks could serve to legitimize Assad and lock him in as a partner for the international community, much as the U.S.- and Russian-brokered agreement for the Syrian government to relinquish its chemical weapons did in September.
Russia, meanwhile, has pushed the government to attend, although Assad has consistently tried to shift the focus of the conference from its official objective of establishing a transitional government — effectively shuffling Assad out of the picture — to combating terrorism.
Mindful of those efforts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly upbraided the Syrian government last week and said Assad must accept the goal of a political transition.
The conference opens in the Swiss city of Montreux with speeches by Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and some two dozen other foreign ministers. The actual negotiations between Assad's government and the Syrian opposition begin two days later at the historic Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The stately setting on the shores of Lake Geneva stands in stark contrast to the heap of shattered images that emerge daily from inside Syria.
Aleppo, an ancient and once-beautiful city in northern Syria, has largely been reduced to rubble in nearly a year and half of fighting. In the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, tens of thousands of people are holding out in the face of months-long government sieges that have cut deliveries of food, medicine and other basics.
Outside the capital in the town of Moadamiyeh, which has been under a blockade for more than a year, residents expressed skepticism that the government would be a faithful negotiating partner, and called on the coalition to stick to its demands for Assad's departure from power, the opening of humanitarian corridors, an end to government shelling and the release of prisoners.
"Without these," said Moadamiyeh-based activist Qusai Zakarya, "all that the opposition will do in Geneva is waste a lot of good time and go buy chocolates and take them to their fancy hotels."
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