Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s frenetic efforts, preparations for the “Geneva II” peace conference on Syria’s civil war are already foundering. The rebel movement has become increasingly radicalized against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and more fractured. A newly confident Assad, meanwhile, has somewhat relegitimized himself as a signatory to a new chemical-weapons ban negotiated by the United States and Russia under U.N. auspices, which his government is tasked with implementing over the next year. Defying global opprobrium over his use of sarin gas, Assad has also positioned himself in a series of high-profile TV interviews as a preferable alternative to Islamist rebels who want to create a fundamentalist state.
All of which should prompt a reexamination of the first Geneva conference in the summer of 2012, on which Kerry’s new push for peace is based. According to some officials involved, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Syria is that, some 80,000 lives ago, President Obama might have had within his grasp a workable plan to end the violence, one that is far less possible now. But amid the politics of the 2012 presidential election—when GOP nominee Mitt Romney regularly accused Obama of being “soft”—the administration did little to make it work and simply took a hard line against Assad, angering the special U.N. Syria envoy, Kofi Annan, and prompting the former U.N. secretary-general to quit, according to several officials involved.