Special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura (left) and Syria’s High Negotiations Committee leader Nasr al-Hariri (right) attend a round of negotiations, during the Intra Syria talks, at the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva last Friday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent meetings in Switzerland, dubbed the Geneva 4 talks, were supposed to be a time for negotiating a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead they turned into a polemic between the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and the Syrian opposition, and then between de Mistura and the Syrian regime’s delegation.
The Geneva talks were supposed to build on the Astana 1 and Astana 2 talks that preceded them. Paving the way for the Astana talks to be held was the agreement between Turkey and Russia in December 2016 to evacuate Aleppo of civilians and armed groups that had been besieged by Syrian regime forces and their Iranian-backed militia allies. The regime and its allies, bolstered by the Russian Air Force, had embarked on a massive operation in Aleppo last year. The evacuation agreement was the first of its kind in Syria between Turkey, which has backed the opposition, and Russia. The success in evacuating Aleppo and helping civilians escape a massacre that would have been committed by the Iranian-backed militias, motivated both Russia and Turkey to push the regime and opposition to approve a cease-fire agreement signed in Ankara on December 29.
The cease-fire has been fragile, mainly because of the regime’s violations of it, and it reduced the number of civilian victims of the war only partially. However, it has been the most successful cease-fire agreement in Syrian since the beginning of the armed conflict six long years ago. The partial success motivated Turkey and Russia to push the sides to go to Astana, and Russia, which has close relations with Kazakhstan, portrayed itself as guarantor of the peace, rather than taking sides.
There were three main issues to be discussed in Astana 1: a cease-fire, political detainees and humanitarian issues, such as opening humanitarian corridors to besieged areas. However, most of Astana 1 was reduced to discussing the cease-fire. In both Astana meetings the Russians made a commitment to the opposition side regarding the cease-fire but failed to achieve a complete cease-fire. On the contrary the regime attacks increased and the opposition lost its remaining stronghold in western Damascus in the Barada valley (Wadi Barada).
One of the prominent opposition members told me in Geneva that they came back from Astana with nothing more than bags of promises, while meanwhile the reality on the ground was that the shelling increased. The same person claimed that Russia failed to guarantee the cease-fire or at least control the Iranian militias on the ground. As a result, the Astana meetings did not make any progress, much less achieve a breakthrough.
The American absence from the political process followed Barack Obama’s departure and Donald Trump’s inauguration. This made Russia the main player politically, after it had become the main military player through direct intervention in October 2015 to protect the Syrian regime from falling after its large losses at the hands of opposition groups that year.
The military gains made Russia eager to turn them to political ones, so it engaged in designing a political solution and it even submitted a new constitution for Syria. Turkey mended fences with Russia in an effort to sponsor a political process, because Turkey needed Russian support in its operation to liberate al-Bab city east of Aleppo from ISIS. That is why Turkey needed played the major role in pushing the opposition to attend Astana 1 and Astana 2 and recently the Geneva 4 talks.
Neither direct nor indirect negotiations happened in Geneva. Instead the talks boiled down to discussing the agenda. At first de Mistura submitted three subjects to be negotiated. First, governance, which is a demand of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. De Mistura did his best to escape using the term “transitional body” that was mentioned in Geneva during 2012 talks. Second, he sought to address a new constitution. Third, he wanted to discuss elections. The issue of a cease-fire was left for further talks in Astana.
The opposition began by rejecting discussion of the second and third subjects, claiming that they are best achieved after establishing a transitional governing body. The opposition also insisted that the governance term in Resolution 2254 means a “transitional body,” as the resolution refers to Geneva 2012 documents as a basis for a political solution.
However, this matter of a “transitional body” became a point of conflict with de Mistura, as the opposition insisted to negotiate only this subject, without going into the constitution and elections. De Mistura held his ground and insisted on his agenda, and this upset the opposition which sought to withdraw from Geneva on only the second day. This threat brought in the Turks, who intervened and convinced the opposition not to withdraw and not be seen as the side refusing a solution.
The opposition then suggested that only after successful negotiations on the “transitional body” should negotiations move on to de Mistura’s second and third subjects. He did not accept this demand and stipulated that all three subjects should be discussed day by day, with the first for governance, the second for the constitution and so forth. The opposition objected.
After ending his meetings with the opposition, de Mistura turned to the regime, but the regime insisted that the central issue of discussion would be terrorism and nothing else. It is a well-known method of the regime that it works to sabotage the process by always talking about the same subject, terrorism, throughout weeks of meetings. Later Russia announced that the regime agreed to negotiate the de Mistura subjects, as long as “terror” was added as a fourth article for discussion.
By the time all these debates had taken place, there was no time for engaging in negotiations and another Geneva meeting was scheduled for March 23. Of some interest is a Russian announcement about a meeting with the opposition that was termed “positive,” but whose contents have not been revealed.
There is another issue that affects the negotiations: the existence of two opposition platforms, called the Cairo platform and the Moscow platform. Their supporters sought a greater role in the High Negotiations Committee of opposition groups. These platforms both showed more tolerance for a post-agreement Syria in which Bashar Assad does not necessarily step down, whereas the HNC has insisted that he go. In Geneva the HNC met with the supporters of the two platforms several times but found no agreement.
In short, even with the next Astana and Geneva meetings there is no tangible outcome expected. This is especially true given the lack of an American presence, and Russian attempts to manage the conflict rather than find a solution. This favors the regime, which still believes strongly in a military solution and which continues to get its support from Iran.The writer is a Syrian journalist.