On Nov. 26, the U.N. secretary general made another call for a Geneva peace conference on Syria, to be held Jan. 22. These calls have been issued since June 2011, but no billigerents have shown up because each has been allowed to define the preconditions for negotiations. The only way to break this stalemate is for the United Nations and major powers to set the conditions for participation and enforce them.
During the past 2½ years, 100,000 more Syrians have died, more than 2 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees and 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced. The war among Syria's many sectarian groups has become more brutal, and some neighboring countries are even more deeply involved in trying to help one side or the other prevail. It is time to ask why the calls for peace have been fruitless.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's opponents have insisted that the goal of the Geneva conference is to replace his government, something he predictably rejects. His government demands that the increasingly fragmented opposition groups, all of whom it classifies as terrorists, put down their weapons before they can discuss peace. This stalemate explains why the latest call for negotiations in January is unlikely to succeed.
The United Nations has been fortunate to have two brilliant special envoys dealing with Syria — Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi — but they have not been permitted to use their negotiating skills because the principal actors insist on preconditions of victory rather than mutual accommodation essential to bringing the war to an end.
These preconditions aim to win an unwinnable war rather than to forge an imperfect peace, and in the process they deny the Syrian people their sovereign right to choose.
An alternative set of preconditions, difficult for all sides to accept, can lead toward democracy and tolerance. This would require that global and regional actors take the first step and encourage their Syrian allies to take the next ones.
All actors will need to make hard compromises if they want to end the war. If they fail to take these difficult steps, the war may very well go on for another decade and likely create a wider circle of destruction and death.
We propose three principles on which to base the discussions in Geneva:
Self-determination: The Syrian people should decide on the country's future government in a free election process under the unrestricted supervision of the international community and responsible nongovernmental organizations, with the results accepted if the elections are judged free and fair;
Respect: The victors should assure and guarantee respect for all sectarian and minority groups; and
Peacekeepers: To ensure that the first two goals are achieved, the international community must guarantee a robust peacekeeping force.
Any local, regional or global actors that accept these three preconditions should be welcomed to the Geneva negotiations.
These preconditions should not be controversial, but they mean that Syrian factions — and their supporters — would have to back down from their former unreasonable demands.
The recent agreement on control of chemical weapons indicates that unforeseen compromises are possible if the United Nations and its major international players can decide on a common goal and work together.
No one can win this war. It is clear that the parties think they cannot afford to lose because they fear annihilation and this explains why the war will keep going unless the international community imposes a legitimate alternative.
An important first step is to create a credible, independent, nonpartisan election commission. A second important step is to build a security mechanism that would prevent any party from sabotaging the election or implementation of the results. We would need Russia and the United States to agree to this approach, Iran and other regional powers to stop supporting their proxies and the United Nations to elevate this issue to a top priority.
It is time to change the agenda, the preconditions and the strategy on Syria — and end the war.
Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States. Robert Pastor is a professor at American University and the senior advisor to the Carter Center on conflict resolution.