Little prospect of Syria peace progress in Geneva talks

BEIRUT - A breakthrough in UN-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva this week seems no more likely than in seven earlier rounds as President Bashar al-Assad pushes for total military victory and his opponents stick by their demand he leave power.
A Syrian newspaper reported on Monday that the government delegation would delay its planned Tuesday arrival in Geneva because of the opposition's insistence that Assad step down.
The stance is seen by Damascus and its allies as divorced from reality after their steady march of victories since Russia entered the war in 2015. The rebels have been forced from all Syria's big cities and their hopes of toppling Assad by military means look finished.
The opposition has also accused the government of refusing to seriously engage.
"The Assad regime must not be allowed to play for time while people are being besieged and bombed," said Yahya al-Aridi, head of the opposition's negotiating committee, on Sunday.
Last week a senior Assad adviser said talks could only succeed if rebels laid down their arms. Over the weekend, air strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta district near Damascus intensified, killing 23 on Sunday, according to a war monitor.
"You cannot expect very much," said Nikolaos Van Dam, a former Dutch diplomat in Damascus and author of two books about Syria.
"The regime doesn't want to really negotiate. They want to reconquer every inch of Syrian territory and then negotiate. But then the opposition would have no bargaining chips," he said.
Russia has pushed its own parallel track of diplomacy since early this year, bringing together Assad's other main ally Iran, as well as Turkey, which has been one of the rebels' biggest supporters.
Russia has elections next year and President Vladimir Putin wants to show progress towards a political deal after two years of fighting far from Russian soil. Moscow has already said it will bring many troops home from Syria by the end of the year.
But Putin may also seek to tout diplomatic progress as he angles for Western countries to take up some of the expensive burden of post-war reconstruction in Syria, now most likely to fall on Russia, Iran and China.
Western foreign ministers said in September their support hinges on a "credible political process leading to a genuine political transition," a process they have said requires the involvement of the opposition.
"Russia wants the end of the war but it wants its ally intact. So what would be the compromise that is acceptable to the opposition or to the other countries? It's not clear to me," said Van Dam.
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