Negotiations aimed at finding a political solution to the war in Syria are set to begin at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva on Thursday as a nationwide ceasefire steadily falls apart and UN officials soften their expectations on achieving any major breakthroughs.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey said they were ready to help broker a Syria peace deal, and organized peace talks meeting in Kazakhstan on January 23.
The first day of the talks was focused on ways to strengthen the ceasefire. It ended with tension as both parts traded blames over truce breaches. In addition, the opposition refused to have direct negotiations with Assad regime.
The talks have ended with Russia, Turkey, and Iran making a joint statement about the consequences of the talks and agreeing on a mechanism to support a delicate ceasefire and to support a new round of peace talks in Geneva.
The second round of Astana talks was held in Kazakhstan’s capital on February 15-16. It didn’t have a final statement, but Turkey, Russia, and Iran issued a mutual agreement indicating that all sides have agreed “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and it can only be solved through the diplomatic implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution Number 2254 in its entirety.”
The Syria peace talks had been planned to begin in Geneva on Feb. 8, but the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that he had decided to delay the UN-sponsored talks until February 23. in order to take advantage of the results of Astana talks.
However, the talks seem to be failing before they start as Assad regime kept breaching the so-called truce and killing more civilians while the global powers have low expectations for this meeting.
UN has no high expectations
In addition, de Mistura has declined to confirm whether a political transition in Syria will be discussed at the forthcoming talks in Geneva, in a change of language that the UN used to describe goals of these talks.
De Mistura gave no clues as to the precise format of the talks or their duration, but it is likely that the Syrian government and the opposition High Negotiations Committee will once again take separate rooms, with UN officials shuttling between them in an effort to find common ground.
“We are not having any excessive expectations, let’s be frank,” De Mistura said at a press conference. He said he hoped to maintain momentum and that neither side would try to disrupt the talks by provoking the other. “I think it will be worthwhile. We are going to give it a serious try.”
De Mistura insisted that he will reject any preconditions for Thursday’s talks, saying the purpose was to develop a new, credible, inclusive and non-sectarian system of governance, a process for free and fair elections, and a new constitution. He insisted that only the Syrian people could write a constitution – a possible reference to a lengthy draft constitution prepared by Russia.
De Mistura’s formula did not explicitly call for a political transition, code in the talks for a requirement that Assad stand down at some fixed point. Momentum on the political track was key, he said, to get ahead of any spoilers: “Don’t be surprised if there are rhetorical, dismissive and aggressive statements. It is what you should expect. Wait and look for the substance.”
Syrian rebels cornered
Eastern Aleppo has fallen from opposition control, and many of the rebel groups have subsequently collapsed into internal bloodletting mergers, splits and kidnappings. When Assad now talks of regaining every inch of Syrian territory from the terrorists, he no longer sounds totally deluded, even if he is heavily dependent on Iranian-backed militia to achieve this.
In addition, divisions in Syria’s north and strategic changes by chief opposition backers have rendered armed opposition weaker than ever.
“What remains of the negotiation-friendly opposition is seeing its resource base frittered away on sideshow projects by foreign backers like Turkey and Jordan, while the indigenous centre of the anti-Assad rebellion is being cannibalised from within by [Islamists],” said an analyst.
Reuters news agency revealed this week that CIA funding for Western-backed rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria’s northwest has been frozen since last month’s division. And while rebels said they believed the freeze – which includes salaries, training, ammunition, and in some cases anti-tank missiles – was temporary, it is evidence of declining rebel fortunes.
Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, captured the change in the landscape, saying: “A year or two ago, Assad’s position seemed more tenuous. I don’t think anyone now thinks he is going to be forced out of office.”
With no actual ceasefire to speak of, and with rebel positions weaker and more divided than ever, the armed opposition is in no shape to consider serious political concessions for fear of losing further relevance and influence on the ground, analysts say.
“I think expectations all around are pretty low,” Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group focused on Syria.
“[Armed groups] participating in Geneva are afraid that any political concession they may make would leave them vulnerable to political attack and one-upmanship by their more hardline allies. So … it makes what would already be a very difficult environment for discussions in Geneva all the more tough,” said Bonsey.
“None of these previous rounds [of negotiations] have really led to substantive conversations … and even what little was accomplished in the first round of Astana Talks has begun to break down.”
Political opposition suffers a hard time
Before this week’s talks in Geneva, members of the opposition have repeatedly called on the government to build on the failing ceasefire with trust-building measures, including the release of detainees, the end to government sieges and the facilitation of humanitarian aid.
Instead, fighting has expanded. Assad and his allies have continued to make progress on the ground, making it difficult to see how a further weakened opposition could force the government to compromise when it has few negotiating chips available.
“Looking at Syria right now, the opposition really doesn’t have an attractive future ahead of it. There’s no political horizon on offer except, possibly, an Assadist restoration,” the analyst added.
“We’re now seeing the UN take that ambiguity in one particular direction, reflecting Assad’s growing advantage on the ground,” said the analyst, referring to the steady gains on the ground made by the government and its allies since Russia’s 2015 military intervention.
“The opposition should understand that there are new realities on the ground in Syria and international changes. It is not like it was in 2011,” the pro-Assad Syrian parliamentarian Sharif Shehadeh said on Wednesday. “The circumstances, the [battlefield] has changed, the political situation has changed, so they need to go with a mindset of participation, not exclusion.”
Behind the scenes, the EU has put pressure on the High Negotiations Committee – which represents a network of rebel fighters and Assad’s political opponents – to acknowledge that they are closer to military and political defeat, and must compromise. However, in public at least, the opposition has shown little willingness to retreat from the position that Assad must go.
“We are fully committed to the Geneva talks and prepared to discuss a political solution and transition,” Anas al-Abdah, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said. “[But] we cannot address the profound security threats … while Assad remains in power.”
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, summed up the impasse at the weekend when he played down expectations of a breakthrough. “Peace is only possible when none of the parties to the conflict think they can win,” he said. “I’m not sure we are yet there.”