The so-called Geneva II conference ended last Friday.  The key to any negotiation regarding Syria is to aim low and keep one's expectations realistic. It is fair to say that UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's (pictured) aim was simply to get two of the sides in a room.  His claim that he didn't expect to achieve anything substantive at the talks meant that he at least met his own realistic expectations.

I used the term 'two of the sides' as opposed to 'the two sides' advisedly. That is because there were two notable absentees from Geneva. The first was Iran, which was invited by Ban Ki-Moon, who then had to uninvite them, which was embarrassing for the UNSG and accepted suspiciously well by Tehran.

The second key player missing was anyone representing the estimated 26,000 extremist Islamist fighters, or between one-third and one-quarter of fighters opposing the Assad regime. Some argue that various Gulf states effectively filled this role, but other reports claim the opposite. Either way, it is difficult to discern any coherent policy regarding the armed opposition. The political opposition has little if any influence over this group.

So toxic was the atmosphere in Geneva that even the hope of a confidence-building measure such as allowing humanitarian access into the city of Homs proved a bridge too far.  The Syrian government wanted to focus the talks on solving the issue of 'the terrorists' (the name by which it refers to its opponents), while the opposition was just as quick to steer the talks towards the transitional government called for by the original Geneva Communique, an issue the Assad representatives refuse to discuss.

Brahimi's statement at the end of the talks was an excellent example of a professional diplomat's ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Having set 10 February as the date for the next round of talks, further attendance by both sides could be seen as a diplomatic victory of sorts, although the initial indications from the parties aren't exactly enthusiastic.  After nearly three years of fighting, however, having groups yell at each other has to be better than shooting. The next step will be to agree to something.

Photo by Flickr user UN Geneva.