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How Do You Measure Geneva’s Success?

The second round of Syrian peace talks concluded in Switzerland on Friday Jan. 31, leaving experts underwhelmed by what they say were inadequate humanitarian aid concessions and open hostility between the government and opposition delegations.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Syrians had hoped for local cease-fires and safe channels into besieged areas for humanitarian aid, which did not materialize apart from an offer to evacuate select women and children from areas of Homs city.

At the beginning of the talks, we asked experts to weigh in on their expectations for Geneva. Here, we ask their perspectives on whether the first round of talks can be considered a success. 

Riad Kahwaji, chief executive, INEGMA:

You can never see getting two warring parties in the same room as a failure. Just getting them there is an achievement in itself. Did you get something out of it? No. Ice has cracked between the two sides, but you didn’t get anything out of it. So the objective we need to get all parties to agree on is first to ease the suffering of the people. A political solution or agreement will take some time, there are a lot of factors affecting the agreement. There are complications between regional and international powers intervening with their interests and various internal parties involved, each with their own objectives, but at the same time you have 9 million people displaced.

We need to focus in coming talks on safe zones, on easing the siege on some cities, safe corridors and passages [for aid] that will not benefit either warring party but will be monitored and controlled by the U.N. for the purpose of civilian safety. You can not just sit and have round after round of meetings while the body count is piling up. It seems both sides have found that neither is willing to back down an inch, so they’re back on the battlefield now with the goal of being in a better position at the next round of talks. This seems to be happening with the silent consent of regional and international powers. We have not reached the point of real seriousness and reaching some sort of an agreement to achieve the minimum to protect civilians.

My expectations were the minimum as to having at least one safe zone, getting aid to some besieged areas. And none of that was achieved. From that end, it was a complete failure. The government seems to be confident that it can make gains and that it can go to the next round having made gains on the ground that the opposition will be compelled to come in weak with concessions. So they will try to delay [the next round of talks] as much as possible, to have time to make those gains.

Andrew Bowen, Middle East scholar, James A. Baker Institute at Rice University:

I think Geneva II was a failure. You got the two parties in the room, but neither was interested in having a substantive dialogue on ending the war. Both came to it as an opportunity to use Geneva as a public sounding board to their own constituents in the region and to show the international community that they are resolute, that these are people who are still a substantial force in Syria. They both came to the table not wanting to make peace, and the Syrian National Coalition came out severely bruised because the regime raised the point, how can you defend the Syrian people when you can’t get armed groups together? This all really laid bare the fragility of the SNC.

You can’t have a peace process with an opposition that doesn’t legitimately represent the entire opposition. It also showed that Assad truly believes he is winning the war. He is very confident that his narrative of the Syrian civil war is gaining traction in the West: that his narrative that he’s fighting terrorism is getting more support, and he doesn’t see this as a moment that he’s going to make peace with [the opposition].

I expected that it would be very difficult to reach local cease-fires. There was a classic exchange at the conference where [SNC head] Ahmad Jarba and his people met with the government delegation and they said, here’s our list of Syrian prisoners. And the deputy foreign minister said OK, we’ll address this list if you provide a list of all the people you’re holding on your side. And the SNC, of course, said, We’re not in a position to do that. The cease-fires [and aid channels] were never feasible unless the armed actors on the ground have representatives in a dialogue. There was a brief window on Homs, but it seems like even that is quite tenuous. The regime came to these talks not taking the SNC seriously, and the SNC came to the table wanting to make progress but facing the reality that as much as they try to represent the Syrians, they’re not the force of power on the ground. It was as if you had negotiations [between] the wrong people.

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