Syria - preparing the end game

          On January 11, 2016 you could scour the internet to your heart’s content, but nowhere would you find a single reference to the start of ceasefire talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the forces rebelling against him.
          Yet on December 11, 2015, after nearly five years of war that had killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, in which the Secretary General was asked to convene formal negotiations “on an urgent basis” between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition on a political transition process. He was given a target of “early January” – taken by most media to mean one month – to have the talks up and running.
That the timetable for this first stage of the international agreement has slipped does not augur well for the other two, namely the establishment of a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian” government in Damascus within six months, and free and fair elections and a new constitution within eighteen.
          Yet the fact that the Security Council agreed on an international road map for a peace process in Syria is by no means insignificant – it demonstrated a rare, but welcome, unanimity among Council members on a political strategy to end the Syrian conflict, and it saw both the US and Russia endorsing the resolution.
          “This council,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry, ”is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support.”
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov added: “This is a clear response to attempts to impose a solution from the outside on Syrians on any issues, including those regarding its president.” His reference to the president is significant. The future of President Assad was, and remains, a bone of contention. It is the one major issue conspicuous by its absence from Resolution 2254. The result is rather like mounting a production of Hamlet without the prince.
          As far back as September 2015, Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, was speculating that, despite the longstanding relationship between the Syrian regime and Russia, Moscow was envisioning a future without the Assad regime in power.
          "Russians are already thinking about post-Assad Damascus,” said Galeotti. ”The Russians have a tradition of offering sanctuary to dictators who flee their country. So, I'm sure there's some cosy dacha outside of Moscow, if Assad does need to flee."
          He may be correct, although at present Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is keeping his cards close to his chest on the issue, ruling nothing in and nothing out. When asked outright during an interview with the German daily Bild, published on January 12, if he would shelter Assad, Putin said it was premature to discuss the issue but threw in, as an aside, that Russia had granted asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden, "which was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr Assad.”
          Having said that, Putin backtracked somewhat. Moscow, he said, was advocating a constitutional reform in Syria, to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections. And if those elections were democratic, "Assad won't have to go anywhere, no matter if he is elected president or not."
          Russia, and perhaps the US, appears to envisage presidential elections in Syria in which Assad could be a candidate. Such a scenario is flatly opposed by France and the UK. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius maintains that the negotiations would succeed only with credible guarantees about Assad’s departure. “How could this man unite a people that he has in part massacred?” said Fabius. “The idea that he could once again stand for election is unacceptable to us.”
          Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has been equally unambiguous – Assad can have no future in a post-civil war Syria. “It’s not just my view that you can’t end up with Assad having a role in Syria. The Syrian people wouldn’t accept it. What you need to do is find a government that can appeal to Alawites, Kurds, Sunnis and Christians, and if you don’t have someone who can do that you won’t have a Syria that works.”
          Russia’s rather equivocal approach to the issue, especially as it appears to have the backing of US Secretary of State John Kerry, is infuriating Syria's opposition coordinator Riad Hijab. Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister, was chosen in December as co-ordinator of the opposition negotiating body to lead future Syria talks. He believes the US has reneged on its anti-Assad position, softening its stance to accommodate Russia. This, he maintained, would make it difficult for the opposition to attend the delayed peace talks, which had by then been re-scheduled for January 25 in Geneva.
          The path leading towards them is rocky. Syrian rebel groups had declared that they would not take part unless humanitarian provision in the latest UN resolution on Syria were implemented. These call for humanitarian access to all in need and the cessation of attacks on civilians. In order to facilitate the Geneva talks, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met representatives of the US, Russia and other major powers and, on January 11, Assad granted access to the government-besieged town of Madaya, and food and first aid was delivered to its starving civilians.
          This is not the only obstacle being placed in the way of the talks by the opposition council. They have told de Mistura that the Assad regime would have to take goodwill steps, including a prisoner release, before they would go to negotiations. It is not clear, however, whether this is a “make or break” pre-condition.
          Nor are the opposition the only party voicing objections. Assad has long labelled as “terrorists” all the various groups opposing him. Russia is not going as far, but is insisting that the international powers produce an agreed list of terrorist groups, presumably so that they can be excluded from the approved opposition council. Assistant US Secretary of State Anne Patterson has said the United States and Russia were working "very assiduously" on the question of defining terrorist groups.
         With all these hurdles to overcome, it would have been a minor triumph in itself if the peace talks scheduled for January 25 had gone ahead on time. But the scheduled start date could not be met because of international disagreement over who should be invited from the opposition, while rebel group stuck to their demands for an end to air strikes and government sieges of territory they hold, and the release of detainees.
           Nevertheless, the international desire to end the horror in Syria is real enough and, as the old saying has it, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014”. He blogs at: