— As fighting in Syria continues, the number of civilians killed, injured and displaced is rising daily.
Tasked with implementing the communique of an international conference held a year and a half ago, the Geneva Conference of 2012 — which envisions an end to the violence, a new constitution and free elections organized by a so-called “transitional governing body” — is faced with one distinct problem: no one knows exactly what that term means.
A key components of the talks, the notion of a transitional governing entity is vague, and no one expects the parties to agree on it for the foreseeable future.
“At the moment I really don’t think that anyone has a vision really of what this transitional government would look like in practical terms," says Middle East expert Hannah Poppy of the London-based Risk Advisory Group, speaking via Skype. "It’s very much an aspirational idea or concept that is yet to take any kind of practical formation.”
While any transitional body would be expected to bring government and opposition figures together, negotiators from both sides have been extremely hostile to each other in public comments, and even in meeting rooms, where they have mostly discussed humanitarian issues via U.N. and Arab League mediators, they've also failed to find agreement.
Any talk of a political transition would involve discussing the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the opposition insists must go and the government insists must stay.
Professor Reinoud Leenders of King’s College says opposition leaders have no flexibility on the issue because of the diverse and fractious coalition they represent.
“They are not in a position to make any compromises on this," he said. "When they would be seen as making compromises on that key issue, I think they will be losing any influence on the ground.”
But, he adds, government officials are also disinclined to compromise, even with foreign supporters Russia and Iran urging them to.
"For them, basically this is a struggle for regime survival, and the regime at its essence is basically a small group of officials and leaders,” said Leenders.
The experts say top Syrian officials, like those at the Geneva talks, are not likely to negotiate themselves out of their jobs, and possibly into exile or jail.
“If they continue to focus on the personality of Bashar al-Assad, the talks are really not going to go anywhere,” Poppy added.
But no one has any alternative either, leaving the process stuck on its key, but ambiguous goal, which the parties so far can’t even discuss.