Confusion reigns in the run-up to the so-called Geneva 2 conference, a summit planned for next month to revive a diplomatic track for resolving the bloody Syrian civil war by installing a transitional governing body to succeed President Bashar Assad.
It's hard to figure out where to start in listing all the obstacles to this endeavor, which already has been delayed time and again because the regime and the rebels can't agree on, well, anything. And yet the blueprint for the process, the Geneva communique of June 2012, states that the goal is a transitional government with full executive authority "by mutual consent."
In remarks today after a meeting of the London 11 -- the United States and 10 other nations with strategic interests in the Syrian conflict -- Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that there was no military solution to a war that's well into its third year. His message was: it may be imperfect, but the Geneva-based diplomatic track is worth another try.
"The Geneva communique is more than a piece of paper, and it should not be a forgotten level of diplomacy," Kerry said. "It is the roadmap that leads to a new future, and it's a future that can end the bloodshed in Syria, can respond to the humanitarian catastrophe, and it rids the country of violent extremist groups. That's our goal."
But here's the problem: Forget the roadmap; the parties won't even get in the car.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main umbrella group, has issued contradictory statements about whether it would attend and has added and yanked random preconditions: Assad must go, Assad's departure must be the ultimate goal, foreign fighters on both sides of the war must leave before talks can begin, and so on.
There was no more clarity Tuesday. As the British newspaper The Independent reported, coalition leader Ahmed Jarba was only more cryptic after the London 11 gathering:
But the president of the opposition coalition, Ahmed Jarba, taking the podium immediately afterwards, was adamant: "The Sultan must leave. Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on. We shall be traitors to our people if we let this happen."
Some of the journalists in the room who had not heard the full sentence thought that Mr Jarba was demanding that (Saudi) Prince Bandar Bin Sultan should resign. This was clarified, but there was further confusion when he later seemed to say that the opposition will be going to Geneva after all even if President Assad remains in power.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition is going to vote in early November about whether it will send a delegation, according to news reports. And that brings us to another problem: Even if the SOC attends, just which Syrians does this unpopular body of exiles claim to represent? And if it's the armed Syrian opposition in attendance, how will they enforce any decisions made in Geneva now that its fighting core has peeled away to join new rival Islamist alliances?
Some of those questions were posed to Kerry, who repeated the U.S. line that nobody thought the process would be easy, but that "the best thing to do is try to get to that table, and that's what we're trying to do."
Another setback to the Geneva process comes with Saudi Arabia's anger with the United States for scrapping plans for a military strike against Assad and for making diplomatic overtures to its archenemy Iran, the Syrian regime's closest ally. Will Saudi Arabia be at the table in Geneva?
Again, there were mixed messages Tuesday.
This Fox News report gives a summary:
The Wall Street Journal reported overnight that Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief told European diplomats that the country will pull back on its cooperation with the U.S. on arming and training Syrian rebels.
The statement comes after Saudi Arabia, in a surprise move, on Friday renounced its seat on the U.N. Security Council. The delegation cited dismay with the Security Council's lack of action toward Syria, but Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud allegedly told western diplomats that "this was a message for the U.S."
And, yet, the Independent and other papers noted:
Speaking about Saudi anger, the British foreign secretary pointed out that the country's foreign minister, Prince Saudi al-Faisal, had signed the joint communique and had, indeed, sat next to Mr Kerry at lunch.
So, will Geneva 2 actually happen in mid-November, as scheduled? Right now, it's anybody's guess. And even if it does occur, there doesn't seem to be much optimism about what can be agreed upon or how any potential agreement could be enforced on a battlefield with foreign extremists entrenched on both sides.