Assessing the Latest Developments from Geneva

As the second round of Geneva peace talks enter their first full week, the Syrian government agreed to let women and children leave the besieged old city of Homs, one of the country’s hardest-hit areas. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

It was viewed as progress by the international community, after an initial few days that saw the opposition nearly back out after a last-minute invitation was offered to Iran, and after widespread doubts that the warring sides would ever agree to sit down together.

We asked experts to weigh in on progress made so far and what needs to continue to happen in the days ahead.

Chris Phillips, lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East, University of London:

I suppose it’s what I was expecting – I wouldn’t call it a complete failure, but that’s because my expectations, like many, were increasingly low. The most obvious success is that the talks didn’t break down immediately, especially in the first few days with Moallem’s very aggressive language and with him saying there’s no chance in hell Assad will step down. At that moment, we were concerned about who was going to walk out first. We should accept that just getting them to talk to each other is a step forward. Those who were expecting any broad solution or conclusion to be achieved had fantastical expectations in the first place.

My understanding is that Homs is pretty much in regime control, so it’s not a great concession to risk letting people out. That’s a battle that’s already won. It would be a far greater concession to let them leave areas more contested at the moment — but there’s been no offer of a ceasefire in Aleppo, no offer of aid into Yarmouk refugee camp, because the regime still sees them as areas of military value. Homs is in an area that is largely in regime control. No men will be allowed out, and the logic there is a military one – the regime is able to claim there’s a possibility that those men could be opposition fighters.

What’s really interesting is the position of the Russians and the regime – their dynamic right now is fascinating. Some reports say the Russians were surprised at the level of hostility expressed by Moallem. The question now is how much the Russians will push them to give more [concessions] before the conference ends. I would hypothesize that the successful conclusion to Geneva II would be an agreement from both sides to meet again, making this the start of a process rather than a one-off occasion. Then the international community could claim they’ve begun a process. Of course, the reality is that this all plays into the regime’s hand — Geneva II is in many ways a legitimizing process for the regime, because the international players who have shunned them for several years are now acknowledging that they are a negotiating partner.

Faysal Itani, fellow, Atlantic Council:

If you judge it by the standards of achieving a negotiated political transition on the basis of Geneva I, it’s been an utter failure. I don’t find that particularly surprising, and I don’t think I’m alone. Some of the things that were interesting were the regime’s blatant disregard for the premise of the Geneva conference.

In terms of humanitarian relief, my first impulse was to be deeply skeptical. The idea of releasing women and children and whoever the regime identifies as civilians on the condition that civilian men register their names with the regime is a license for targeted assassinations and going after the opposition. Even in the event that this is carried through, I suspect the promise not to harm registered civilians in Homs is fragile at best.

But it’s interesting that they offered it to begin with. The optics of it make them look semi reasonable and highlight the fact that the opposition, in Geneva, is not in a position to make their own concessions. There have been no concessions by the opposition, and the regime realizes that. Theoretically, what’s possible in terms of those concessions? Ceasefires and the release of regime prisoners, which is blatantly obvious that they can’t do. And the regime’s desire to make concessions is partly to highlight that imbalance.

In terms of the international community’s conduct this week, John Kerry’s been quite adamantly consistent. He gets points for that. As do the Russians – they are playing a long game here. They understand that by all but explicitly refusing the principles of Geneva I, they are hoping to buy time for the regime to change the military situation on the ground and reconquer Syria, which would make Geneva a moot point anyway.

Over the next few days, perhaps we’ll see some more progress made on implementing the regime’s promised concessions. I don’t envision that the talks will move to the next phase of meaningful discussion of political transition – and in its defense, the regime has been transparent about that.

Lama Fakih, Syria-Lebanon researcher, Human Rights Watch:

We’re still waiting to see how the planned evacuation from Homs happens and the full scope of the deal between the opposition and the government. We need to understand it in the context of the current humanitarian situation in country. There have been significant challenges in getting to the more than 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians because of these intentional sieges that the government is imposing across the country, and that have also been carried out by the opposition in Aleppo governorate.

In addition, we know the government is still content to refuse to allow assistance to come in from Turkey. The agreement being discussed for the old city of Homs is important for the residents that live there – there have been reports of people dying from malnutrition. What the government is now discussing with the opposition is allowing women and children to leave, and that agreement, if it ends there, does not actually require the government to fulfill the extent of its obligations under international humanitarian law — which would be not to restrict aid into old Homs city and not to restrict access to medical treatment.

This cannot be the end of concessions. The Syrian government is giving concessions to abide by their international legal obligations. This week, we need more international pressure on the government, to push them to fulfill the most basic obligations under the laws of war, which is to not restrict humanitarian access. We’re clearly far from that.

We also need to continue to press the parties and Brahimi and the mediation team to push for release of arbitrarily held detainees –  those held by all sides. This is an area where we hope there will be some progress.

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