As representatives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition met in Geneva, the prospects of an agreement to end the bitter 3 year civil war that has killed over 130,000 and displaced millions were dim.
The fiery exchanges at the opening of the conference in Montreaux and the deep reluctance to even meet face-to-face, never the mind the entrenched positions over the fate of Bashar al-Assad, underscored the challenges of securing any meaningful agreement.
Yet in so many ways, getting the opposing sides in the same room was an accomplishment in itself. With every bullet fired, every air strike launched and every death recorded, the animosity only deepens and reconciliation is pushed a step further. The profound emotional scarring cannot be patched in a few days in Geneva, but let there be no doubt, the regime and opposition have no choice but to reach a peaceful settlement sooner or later.
If there was a military solution it would have been achieved months ago. 3 years on, with the forces in a stalemate and with most of Syria lying in ruins and blood, no matter the eventual outcome, how can anyone truly feel victorious? What will they govern with some cities in literal ruin and billions of dollars needed to reconstruct the country?
More importantly, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Syria can ever be whole again. Too much damage has been done and the polarization is now too great for Syria to ever return to any sense of unity.
In this light, it was symbolic and largely missed due to the intense focus on Geneva, that the Syrian Kurds declared administrative autonomy and a provincial governance on the eve of the conference.
The Kurds who have had relative self-rule since July 2012 are increasingly working towards safeguarding and formalizing their new found autonomy. The Kurdish area in Syria, or Rojava as most proudly refer to, is set to be ruled under 3 cantons, Kobani, Efrin and Jazira with an Autonomous Governing Council in each region.
Kurds are already preparing a local constitution and have their eyes on holding elections early this year as well as taking many steps to resume normal life in the region. Anyone would think this is taking place in a distant land, but this is taking place in the same country ruled by Assad and gripped by a deadly civil war.
The growing Kurdish confidence and assertiveness having successfully warded off Islamist forces, naturally unnerves Turkey and other regional players. The Syrian Kurdistan region is effectively governed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with links to the PKK and protected by the People Defense Units. This only adds to Turkish anxiety.
Yet with the Syrian Kurds stamping their authority, it was ironic that in Geneva the Kurds were refused a separate delegation or had any specific mention. Regardless of any political deal in Geneva, the Kurds are not about to take a step back into the dark days of the past and relinquish their hard fought gains.
With Alawites weary of Sunni backlash in any post-Assad era, there will almost certainly be a de facto sectarian delineation in Syria to add to the ethnic lines that the Kurdish self-rule promises.
The only way Syria can be truly patched is a loose federation where Sunni, Kurds or Alawites govern their own regions.
The problem in Syria is that the opposition is not represented by one group but a spectrum of forces with differing agendas. Take the SNC, they only agreed to attend the peace talks after dozens of their members walked out in protest and even if anything is agreed long-term, they have insufficient sway with the fighters on the ground.
This introduces the likely scenario that if a broader peace agreement was achieved, it would never be comprehensive and thus there is every chance that the opposition and regime forces may turn their guns on other forces, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Islamic groups that will never accept or recognize any agreement.
Unfortunately for Syria, the fighting has a long way to go before it reaches its course, regardless of any symbolic breakthrough in Geneva.