By Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (Xinhua) -- Expectations are "low" for this week's Syria peace talks in Geneva as violence continues unabated in the embattled Middle East country, U.S. experts told Xinhua.
"Low expectations surrounding the talks are appropriate given the iffy prospects for any meaningful progress," said Wayne White, former deputy director of the U. S. State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office.
He added that bringing together the two warring sides in Syria is the main reason the talks have been repeatedly postponed, finally beginning this week in Montreux before they'll move to Geneva.
The objective of the talks is to set up a transitional governing body that would put a stop to the fighting that has plagued the war-torn nation for three years and resulted in 100,000 deaths. But getting all rebel factions on board at this stage is a tall order, if possible at all, and experts said that is the main hurdle.
Indeed, only one coalition of rebels, largely confined to northwest Syria near Aleppo, has supported the main opposition leadership in exile, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), in its decision to attend the peace talks. And most of the SNC is attending under heavy U.S. and Western pressure, White said.
Moreover, while some rebel factions are demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down -- with some opposing attendance if Assad does not do so -- Assad's government knows it holds the upper hand militarily and has no reason to accept such terms, White said.
David Pollock, a Middle East expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Xinhua he was skeptical that the conference would achieve any meaningful results.
"The only likely outcome will be some limited cease-fire or humanitarian relief, at best," he said. "Even that will probably not be very lasting or effective on the ground."
But other experts believe diplomacy is the only way out of the current impasse, with a military solution unlikely amid brutal fighting that continues with no end in sight.
RAND Corporation's senior policy analyst, Alireza Nader, said that despite low expectations for this week's meetings, diplomacy remains the best option for resolving the Syrian crisis, especially given that neither side seems able to win a decisive military victory.
While the talks are unlikely to produce immediate results, they could clear a path toward a final settlement, although that possibility remains far down the road, Nader told Xinhua. He added that all major players involved in the conflict, including Iran, need to be part of the diplomatic process.
The United Nations this week withdrew its invitation for Iran to attend the talks, as Tehran failed to get on board with the plan to establish a transitional governing body, the basis of the meetings in Geneva.
The SNC had earlier threatened to boycott the talks if Iran was invited, but the group now confirmed they would be present.
Steven Heydemann, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Xinhua the meetings are really about testing the viability of the Geneva process and identifying key obstacles.
"No one expects this meeting to produce anything close to an agreement," he said, explaining that the talks are expected to clarify participants' positions somewhat, inform diplomats of where further efforts might be justified and get involved parties used to the idea of having a diplomatic process.
"Those are not very high ambitions, but they are the best we are likely to get," he said.
Some experts said the U.S. and other Western nations have lost influence among some Syrian rebel forces, and that may impact on peace negotiations going forward.
Western and U.S. influence on some rebel factions has been undermined by what some rebels view as broken promises, which means the West and U.S. are less able to compel rebel forces to attend the peace talks, White said.
But other experts said the talks are crucial to the lives of thousands of displaced Syrian refugees who remain in limbo, and the meetings may be the last chance to find a political solution, as nearly two and a half million Syrians have fled the war-ravaged country and headed to neighboring countries.
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