While any talks between combatants should be seen as a positive move, the expectation of any substantive outcome at Geneva II is virtually zero.
Under intense pressure from its Western supporters, the rather shambolic Syrian opposition grouping (known currently as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) was able muster 58 out of 75 voting members to support attendacne at this week's talks. This sounds like a solid enough majority, until you realise that 44 members (largely from the pro-Qatari faction) boycotted the vote in protest at even considering participating in the 'peace conference'. Fifty-eight out of 119 possible voting members sounds entirely less convincing.
The lack of authority that Syria's putative (and out-of-country) alternative political leadership has with the armed opposition is further reason to doubt the ability of this meeting to deliver anything of substance. Nothing about the conflict is simple, but the degree to which external interference has diluted the efforts of the opposition and underpinned the survival of the Assad regime says much about the complexity of the conflict. It is also a dead weight on the ability to achieve an outcome acceptable to the external players, let alone the Syrians themselves.
The sensitivity that surrounds the external players is perhaps best illustrated by the presence of Iran. US Secretary of State John Kerry opposed Iranian participation in Geneva II for a long time, then appeared to relent to allowing Tehran to come as an observer. The UN Secretary-General has now formally invited Iran to attend the talks.
Any Syrian 'solution' will ultimately be determined by actors outside Syria. So what is the point of these talks if the opposition isn't empowered to deliver anything much, and the government appears disinclined to concede anything?
Former British foreign secretary David Milliband has perhaps provided an answer, by highlighting the simple humanitarian reasons why the conference could have purpose. Beyond the great games played by regional powers, and the legitimate Western fears of the country being a training ground for radical Islamists, the situation in Syria is the decade's greatest humanitarian disaster. And if any relief for the embattled Syrian population emerges from the conference, then there will at least have been some purpose to it.
Image courtesy of Oxfam International.