Barring any last-minute delay, UN-brokered talks on Syria are due to get under way in Geneva – the third time the Swiss city has played host to diplomatic efforts to end the war and tackle the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But prospects for a breakthrough are probably even slimmer than on the previous two attempts.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, cannot even be sure who will attend on Friday – and when. The Syrian opposition announced on Thursday night that its officials would not be coming until they received guarantees of an end to government airstrikes and sieges. Bashar al-Assad’s representatives are expected at the Palais des Nations, though they may not meet their enemies.
“We are serious about taking part … but what is hindering the start of negotiations is the one who is bombing civilians and starving them,” declared Salem al-Muslet, the spokesman for opposition negotiators who were meeting in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The talks had originally been scheduled to start last Monday. Diplomats in Geneva said the UN was anxious not to postpone them again. But no formal opening of the conference has been arranged.
While the stakes are high, De Mistura is keeping expectations low and preparing for a long haul. The Italian-Swedish UN veteran intends to hold six months of “proximity talks” – dealing separately with the two Syrian sides and shuttling between them because there is not enough common ground for them to sit together without an immediate collapse. Neither has pledged to halt their fighting.
Priorities for the first round are to explore prospects for local ceasefires, enhanced efforts to fight Islamic State and improved humanitarian access to besieged areas. Significantly, there are no plans to discuss the key questions of Assad’s future or forming a transitional governing body that might include his opponents.
Those ideas were at the heart of the communique issued in Geneva in June 2012 and which, until recently, constituted the bedrock of diplomatic efforts to secure peace. At the second Geneva session, in January 2014, the Syrians met, exchanged abuse and left. That fiasco followed the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces and preceded the advances by Isis in Iraq the following summer.
The fact that these talks are taking place at all owes more to international desperation and impatience than any readiness by the Syrian protagonists to talk to each other about ending a conflict that has cost 250,000-300,000 lives, made millions homeless and destabilised the Middle East.
Last autumn’s military intervention by Russia, ostensibly to confront the growing menace of Isis but in fact targeting mainstream rebel groups fighting Assad, galvanised moves to launch the Vienna process – of which this Geneva meeting is the outcome.
Vienna’s novelty was that Iran and Saudi Arabia, bitter rivals and Assad’s main regional supporter and enemy respectively, were both at the table for the first time – though their own relations have worsened dramatically since then. The task, in the words of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, is to “chart a course out of hell”.
Nearly five years since the Syrian crisis erupted, the initiative is with Russia and Iran, rather than the US, Britain, France and the Gulf states, which first called for Assad to step down in the summer of 2011.
Last Saturday, when Kerry met the opposition negotiations committee in Riyadh, he is said to have told them bluntly that they were not a viable alternative to Assad and would have to accept proposals emanating from Moscow and Tehran, including Assad’s right to stand for re-election, or lose Washington’s support. The US complained afterwards of “wilful mischaracterisations” of what had transpired. Assad’s future had to be decided “by mutual consent”, it recalled.
Riyad Hijab, who defected while serving as Syrian prime minister and now heads the opposition negotiations committee, had a tense meeting with Kerry and faced pressure from the Saudis to turn up in Geneva. Armed groups already oppose talks by exiled political leaders they think have spent too long in luxury hotels far from the frontlines.
“Kerry misjudged the mood of the opposition and he has jeopardised the whole process as a result,” said an independent Syrian source. “On the other hand the opposition are spoiled. They have got used to people being nice to them and going along with their narrative. Now things are difficult and it’s pretty devastating.”
Mutual suspicions could hardly be deeper. The Syrian government objects to the choice of Mohammed Alloush, of the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) group, as chief opposition negotiator. It sees him as a terrorist – like his brother and JAI leader, Zahran Alloush, who was killed in a recent airstrike near Damascus.
De Mistura ignored Russian demands that Syrian Kurds be invited to the talks – partly because of strong opposition by Turkey – but he bowed to pressure for Russian-backed Syrian moderates to be present, albeit described as “consultants”.
Western-backed opposition figures clearly fear the tide is turning against them. “We live in a time where things are turned upside down; a criminal becomes the victim and the victim becomes the executioner,” complained Burhan Ghalioun, the former president of the Syrian National Council. “All this takes place behind a veneer of affable but false talk about a political solution, peace and reconciliation.”
Military realities on the ground are not helping. This week saw the fall of Sheikh Miskeen, a strategic rebel-held town near the Jordanian border, with the help of Russian airstrikes. The town of Salma, in the Latakia area of north-west Syria, was also retaken by Assad’s forces.
De Mistura appears to be following the model of the Oslo talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation: their initial 1993 agreement was dramatic but was followed by interim deals, while the toughest “final status” issues were left until the end of a “peace process” that was emptied of content until it ground to a halt. Applying that parallel, failing to address Syria’s political future now means it will be even harder to do so in future. Leaving it unresolved will not restore the stability needed for millions of refugees to return home.
“Negotiations must begin, in good faith,” said Michael Ratney, the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, “and only then can the world know with clarity who is responsible for their success or failure.”