WASHINGTON – Optimistic after a cease-fire in Syria’s civil war largely held last week, the UN’s special envoy to the conflict, Staffan de Mistura, is laying the groundwork for political negotiations between the country’s two warring sides.
Talks between embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting for his overthrow were set to begin on Monday.
They have since been twice delayed. But the envoy is confident that “proximity” talks – de Mistura and his staff will relay messages to each side, camped in different conference rooms – will finally begin in earnest in the days to come, building off the first genuine pause in fighting since the civil war began.
Those talks are likely to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict, in mid-March of 2011, when protests against Assad’s rule went national and the government attempted a military crackdown on unsettled civilian populations.
For the first time in years, Syrians have felt safe enough to reenter the streets in protest now that regime barrel bombs and Russian air strikes have largely abated.
The streets of an Idlib province town transformed on Friday into a river of rebel flags – a celebration of the cease-fire, as much as a demonstration of the conviction many Syrians hold that Assad must depart his office.
That remains the greatest challenge of the political process taking place in Geneva, where Assad’s allies – Russia and Iran – argue that he remains the only legitimate ruler of Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab nations and the United States say that Assad is the primary agitator of the conflict and a war criminal who has lost all legitimacy.
Twenty nations with vested interests in the conflict, known as the International Syria Support Group, have agreed on a road map to end the war that begins with a permanent cease-fire, followed by a political transition and then nationwide elections.
“For us it is very clear it’s at the beginning of the process, not at the end of the process,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, on precisely when Riyadh expects Assad to step down. “It’s not going to be 18 months.”
Russia’s direct intervention in the conflict last year dramatically shifted the war in Assad’s favor – changing facts on the ground that translate into diplomatic leverage at the negotiating table. And Syrian rebel leaders, together composing the High Negotiations Committee, said on Friday that the Obama administration has already made too many concessions to Moscow for talks to proceed.
“We believe that the current conditions are not favorable for these negotiations, no aid has entered the besieged areas and detainees have not been released,” Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said in Paris. He noted that Syrian and Russian operations were continuing, albeit at a slower pace.
“The US has made and continues to make many concessions to Russia, which affect the future of the Syrian people,” he added.
The Obama administration rejected Hijab’s characterization on Friday.
“I would not couch it that way at all,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“This isn’t about yielding concessions; it’s about working with the Russians to get at what we all want to see, which is a peaceful Syria and a political process to resolve this civil war.”
Moscow says that it has largely halted its air operations during the cease-fire, while on Saturday, it cited nine rebel cease-fire violations over a 24-hour period.
“Russia has taken a leadership role inside the ISSG [the International Syria Support Group], and they have been helpful,” Kirby continued, adding: “We have seen reports of potential violations, and that concerns us, obviously.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitor based in Britain, reports that 135 Syrians were killed in the areas covered by the cease-fire during its first week.