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The limits of diplomacy [Editorial]

After three years of civil war, Syrian President Bashar Assad's representatives sat down with opposition leaders for the first time this week to seek a way forward for their country. An initial meeting Wednesday got off to a rocky start, with speakers on both sides bitterly denouncing their opposite numbers as terrorists and war criminals. Still, the diplomatic effort in Geneva is worth pursuing when the parties begin face-to-face talks Friday under the auspices of United Nations mediators. Even a short-term cease-fire that allowed deliveries of badly needed humanitarian aid to Syria's beleaguered civilian population would represent progress in this long-running conflict.

Wednesdays' defiant posturing seemed calculated to dampen any prospect for a quick political breakthrough leading to the establishment of a transitional government in which Mr. Assad would play no part. That is the stated goal of the talks organized by the U.S., its Western partners and Russia. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who led his government's delegation, spent his entire time at the podium angrily reiterating Mr. Assad's unwavering opposition to any settlement that would require him to give up power. Opposition movement representatives were just as adamant that they would never agree to a power-sharing arrangement with the Syrian president.

The gathering Wednesday, attended by more than 40 countries, also stumbled over an awkward incident involving U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's last-minute invitation to Iran to join the talks, which was quickly withdrawn under pressure by the U.S. and its regional allies after Iranian officials refused to endorse the conference's agenda of an interim government that excluded Mr. Assad. Iran has steadfastly supported Mr. Assad by supplying military advisers, advanced weaponry and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to prop up the regime in Damascus, and it has long insisted that no resolution of the conflict is possible without its participation. Now that it has been dis-invited from the Geneva gathering, it will doubtless do everything it can to make that prediction come true.

There's been a great deal of criticism of the Obama administration for pushing the Geneva talks now rather than having carried out its threat to bomb Syria earlier this year as punishment for Mr. Assad's use of chemical weapons. Such a strike might have substantially weakened the Assad government and forced it to negotiate in good faith with the opposition. Mr. Obama instead accepted a Russian plan for Syria to voluntarily surrender its chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. We still think that was the right call, even if it also gave Mr. Assad's military breathing space to reverse some of the losses it suffered on the battlefield. The situation has returned to a military stalemate in which neither side can gain a decisive advantage — but also one in which chemical weapons are not being used against civilians. Absent some surprising new development or outside intervention, the fighting that has already killed some 130,000 Syrians could go on for years.

That makes it all the more important to protect the civilians caught up in Mr. Assad's bloody bid to stay in power. An interim agreement that allows humanitarian aid to reach the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in squalid refugee camps should be a priority for the U.S. and its partners when Syrian officials and opposition leaders sit down for their first direct negotiations on Friday. Mr. Assad will doubtless seek to use the refugees' plight as a bargaining chip to extort military concessions at the negotiating table. The U.S. and its partners must firmly resist such demands. Compelling the dictator to allow food, medicines and other humanitarian aid to reach the most vulnerable victims of conflict may not end the war, but it may be the most the diplomacy can achieve given the current military balance on the ground.

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